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Govt's insistence of no community spread 'misleading'; increased testing came "too late": Pitroda

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Press Trust of India  |  New Delhi 

Hitting out at the Modi government's response to COVID-19, senior Congress leader Sam Pitroda on Thursday said the Centre's insistence that there is no community spread is "misleading" and the increase in testing capacity has come "too late".

Pitroda, a technocrat-turned-politician and the head of the Indian Overseas Congress, also asserted that COVID-19 cannot become an excuse for the national government to take over the role of the states.

In a statement released on the occasion of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's death anniversary, Pitroda suggested 10 steps to the government for combating the novel coronavirus in India in a blog.

As part of his suggestions, he said the lockdown was useful as a way of getting some time to prepare, but no country can afford to use it as a permanent solution to fight the virus.

"We have to set down a time-bound plan for coming out of the lockdown," Pitroda said.

He contended that with over 112,000 cases and nearly 3,500 deaths in India as of May 20, it is inconceivable that the virus is not spreading in the community.

"The government continuing to insist that there is no community spread is misleading and gives people the false hope that they are protected," Pitroda said.

If people cannot trust their government when there is a relatively low number of cases, how will they trust their government when the number of cases starts increasing, he asked.

It is better to plan for the worst and hope for the best, said Pitroda, a key aide of Rajiv Gandhi.

He also said the current increase in testing is useful but has come "too late".

"We wasted our resources by focusing only on people coming home from abroad or on known contacts of existing cases and left out high risk, low-income populations amongst whom the virus was spreading rapidly," Pitroda said.

"If we had started testing in early February when we had our first cases, this level of testing would have been adequate to contain the virus in clusters," he said.

"Now we have to assume that the virus has spread across communities and we can only identify the infected by mass testing high risk citizens, which includes anyone over the age of 50, and those with other morbidities," he said.

The Indian Overseas Congress chief also urged the government to prepare for more cases, saying if "we are not prepared even now, after eight weeks of a nationwide lockdown, we are never going to be prepared".

The government should spell out what it has done in terms of procurement and preparedness during these past eight weeks, that will be of help when the number of cases increases, he argued.

He also urged the Centre to allow states leeway to respond to the crisis and designate which districts need special "hot spot" intervention.

"Focus national efforts on providing help to states with medical equipment and supplies rather than assuming that experts in Delhi have a better understanding of the situation than the public health officials on the ground," Pitroda said in his suggestions to the government.

Pitroda, who is credited with being the architect of the telecom revolution under Rajiv Gandhi, claimed that there is troubling evidence that decisions about lockdowns and plans are being made without listening to the best scientific minds in the country.

"The purchase of antibody testing kits was a mess because it was done without sufficient validation or consultation. Even today, we don't know how many people have already been infected because India has not done a serological survey like has been done in many other countries," he said.

Underlining that crores of Indians have lost their livelihoods in both rural and urban India, Pitroda said many are starving and if and when they contract the COVID-19 virus, they could be at a greater risk because of their weakened state.

"The current level of support for our citizens is simply unacceptable. A national programme that provides food rations to every citizen, with or without a ration card, for a six month period, is easily achievable given our ample stock of food grains," he said.

Claiming that much of the financial support that the government has promised is yet to reach many citizens, Pitroda said all bottlenecks must be removed to make sure what has been promised is delivered without any further delay.

Pitroda also called for prioritising activities that will allow the economy to recover.

"Allow freedom of movement for work including public transport but ban mass religious, social and cultural gatherings for the next few months," he said in his suggestions.

All offices, businesses and markets should be allowed to open, Pitroda said.

"We know that the virus spreads with or without a lockdown. But we cannot fight the COVID-19 virus on an empty stomach," he said.

Pitroda also argued that the current crisis can become an opportunity if it can be used to invest in public health infrastructure.

The health and wellness centers that were promised under the Ayushman Bharat programme have not yet come into existence at scale. It will take less than 100,000 crore to build a world class health system that will serve us in the years to come," he said.

Pointing out that national and international experts have indicated that India has to live with this virus for at least another 18 months, Pitroda said the government should spell out a clear two-year plan rather than providing guidance week by week.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Thu, May 21 2020. 15:53 IST
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