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India’s approach to COVID-19 has been that of information, prevention, action, and caution: Consul General Dr Swati Kulkarni

Consul General Dr Swati V. Kulkarni talks about India’s efforts at dealing with COVID-19, US-India collaboration in the war against the pandemic, the Indian Diaspora’s contributions, and shares her thoughts about what the future holds for India.

Cover photo courtesy: Magic Dust Photography

The US has been one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19. Given the strong bilateral relations between India and the US, what collaborative efforts have the two countries undertaken in the war against the pandemic?

As two large democracies of the world and having shared dreams about the welfare of the people, India and US are actively partnering to tackle this pandemic. The two premier institutions of both the countries – Indian Council for Medical Research of India and the Center for Disease Prevention and Control of USA – are working in close cooperation towards monitoring and finding effective ways to control COVID-19 and to treat those suffering from it. US Agency for International Development has provided US$ 5.9 million to India in supporting its efforts for controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. We are engaged with the US side for procurement of RT-PCR – Reverse Transcript Polymerase Chain Reaction and rapid antibody test kits – Ribonucleic acid extraction kits and other medical supplies as per our requirements. US companies have expressed interest in supplying it to us, and in some cases, orders have already been placed. We are confident that post-COVID, US industry leaders would continue to find India “an attractive investment destination” for their businesses. I feel proud to convey that Indian businesses and community organizations – both small and big – such as AAPI, AAHOA etc. have come forward in extending all possible support to our nationals and other nationals including the front liners – healthcare and police personnel – and to the poor and homeless.

The Indian diaspora in the US has been on the forefront in the war against COVID-19. Can you elaborate on the community’s contributions?
I feel very proud to state that both at the request of the Consulate, our Embassy in Washington and even on their own, several organizations have come forward to provide services such as meals, mask, free medicines etc. Our community organizations are at the forefront and are organizing online meetings for adults, kids, senior citizens etc. on diverse issues to help people stay healthy while they are confined to their homes.

The Consulate General of India in Atlanta covers six states and two US territories. How is it coping with work during the time of COVID-19?
Our Ministry of External Affairs has been playing a key role in Empowered Group of Ministers under the leadership of Prime Minster Modi and remains fully engaged with the intra-agency process to deal with the situation – both on domestic front and international front. Our Foreign Ministry has established a COVID cell to co-ordinate national and international efforts. The COVID cell remains operational 24 X 7. The cell is proactive in tackling various aspects of the crisis management operation. It is this cell which provides us advisories/circulars from time to time.

Due to the stay-at-home order, the Consulate continues to operate with essential staff and is supported by staff working from home. We have our roster/schedule of rotation. We have taken steps to remain healthy apart from following up on the guidelines issued by the local authorities regularly. The Consulate with its limited resources, is doing its earnest best to serve its people. The situation is evolving all the time and is being reviewed all the time. As directed by COVID cell, we issue advisories on our social media handles. As on date, we have responded to nearly 800 queries received over phone/email received from the diaspora. We encourage all to visit our web page ( https://www.indiainatlanta.gov.in/ ) from time to time and get conversant with the advisories which provide the latest authentic information. The Consulate is helping students facing challenges towards accommodation either on or off campus. The Embassy is notified of the visa issues being faced by Indian nationals.

We come from a land of both compassion and culture – we need to work together. Our deeds will earn us great admiration and respect. Our Ambassador, in his interaction with the prominent members of the diaspora, called our community “an extraordinary source of strength”. 

Our Hon’ble Prime Minister’s has aptly remarked that “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, color, cast, creed, language or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together…… The future will be about togetherness and resilience”. Our strength comes from unity and cooperation.

What is the current scenario in India like? How has the Government used the lockdown period to increase its pandemic preparedness?
The approach of the Government of India towards COVID-19 has been that of information, prevention, action, and caution. Currently, there are more than 46,000 cases. Although the numbers have been growing, the Government of India, through sustained efforts, has been able to delay substantially the doubling of the cases. The COVID-19 mortality related rate is about 3.4% – we have witnessed about 1,583 deaths as on date. The recovery rate is about 27% – we have witnessed 13,000 plus people who recovered from COVID-19 as of now. As pandemic will progress, we are expected to see flattening of the curve in the second half of the May 2020. After May 3, 2020, the Government of India has taken small steps to ease restrictions, have identified zones related to COVID-19 and have undertaken specific actions /resolutions for the zone concerned.

The nationwide lockdown period has been used for augmenting our national health preparedness – facilitating procurement of medical equipment, test kits, PPEs, masks etc. and conducting massive testing and launching contact surveillance operations. All these efforts are ongoing at pan-India level. The Government wants to be able to test at least 100,000 people daily by May 31, 2020. Not only the Government of India but the private sector too is actively engaged towards the early development of affordable ventilators. The Serum Institute of India, Pune, which has one of the world’s largest production facility, is reportedly in an advanced stage towards the development and production of vaccine against COVID-19.  

What other measures has the Government of India taken to tackle the pandemic?
The Government of India imposed a lockdown since 24 March 2020 which currently is effective till May 17, 2020. Significantly, the lockdown and other preventive measures have been effective in preventing the community spread of the virus. A pan-India operation is in place towards surveillance and contact tracing to pre-empt transmission.

The Government has provided relief to the people by extending the filing of Income Tax Returns for financial year 2018-2019 to 30 June 2020 and extended GST returns for March, April, and May to 30 June 2020. The existing threshold for Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) has been enhanced from INR 1,00,000 to INR 1,00,00,000 – a 1,000% increase. Financial assistance amounting to US$ 3.9 billion has been disbursed digitally through direct cash transfer to more than 320 million people using the Jan Dhan account, Aadhar and mobile number. The Government is also encouraging use of digital modes of money transfer and providing waiver of fees on use of ATMs for a limited period. BSNL, (a Government entity) is providing highly concessional data and telephone services. About 800 million poor people have been given free food and 80 million families free cooking gas. Essential grocery supplies are being provided at near doorstep both to help the people as well as help avoid them venturing out of their homes. Several private organizations, NGOs and others have overwhelmingly joined Government efforts to assist the people in distress.

In the field of education, the Government has launched the DIKSHA Portal to help teachers and boost E-learning including E-Pathshala to enable access to various E-Books and learning material. Use of tele-medicine is being encouraged to provide consultations to those requiring medical attention without having the need to visit any clinic /hospital.

The Government is moving forward with a calibrated and measured approach. From May 3rd, the Government has undertaken small steps to ease restrictions – allowing for limited internal travel, opening of select shops, business and offices etc.

The world is witnessing a downturn in economy. What does the future hold for India?
These are tough times for the global economy. Consumer spending is on hold everywhere including in India as the lockdown has sizable impact on consumption and investments. The industrial production has taken a dip. The Government of India is fully aware of the current downturn of the economy and is gearing up to confront turbulence on account of disruption in trade flows/supply chains and attenuated growth aggravated by the supply, demand and liquidity shocks that COVID-19 inflicted. The Government has been preparing strategies and action plans not only for business continuity and sectoral revival but also to improve Ease of Doing Business in the country by releasing a number of notifications/amendments/circulars to improve the business environment in India. It is our expectation that the course of the economic recovery in India will be smoother and faster than that of many other countries. The IMF, while forecasting global recession due to COVID-19, has projected India’s growth rate at 1.9% in 2020 – indicating 5.8% rebound in 2021. The UNCTAD in its latest report “The COVID-19 shocks to developing countries” has predicted that major economy least exposed to recession would be India.

The World Bank fast-tracked US$1 billion to India for strengthening its public health preparedness. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has supported with a US$1.5 billion Covid-19 package for India.

Most credit agencies have revised their 2020-2021 fiscal growth projections for India keeping in view the negative impact of corona-virus- induced travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions, subdued consumption and investment levels on the growth of both global and the Indian economy. The revised growth forecasts for India for FY 2020-21 ranges from 2% to 3.5% as given by various credit agencies.

We are preparing and bracing for the future even as we presently consumed with the battle. Online activities such as e-commerce will make great strides. The sectors which may witness appreciable growth could be IT and IT enabled services, online healthcare, personal care, entertainment, education, media, food/food retail, tele-communication, pharmaceutical, utility services etc. while some sectors such as apparels and textiles, chemicals, agriculture, mining, tourism, transportation and automobiles etc. may witness short-term challenges.

Fighting a pandemic requires international efforts. What is India’s contribution in this regard?
While meeting our domestic requirements, India has ensured supply of medicines and other medical consumables to its partner countries. India’s contribution has been widely appreciated. We are happy that in these difficult times India has remained responsible and reliable in living up to its international commitments.

At a virtual meeting with the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) on 15 March 2020, Hon’ble Prime Minister proposed establishment of an Emergency Response Fund. India contributed an initial capital of US$ 410 million which was much appreciated. The fund is operational. India has already sent medical supplies and testing equipment to SAARC nations. India also contributed towards the G-20s’ target of injecting US$5 trillion into the global economy to limit job and income losses from the Corona Virus. This fund is expected to assist global economic growth.

India has retained, and possibly enhanced, its reputation of being the “Pharmacy of the World”. India has shipped Hydroxyl Chloroquine and Paracetamol tablets to 60 plus countries including US, Spain, Germany, Bahrain, Brazil, SAARC nations etc. The value of total medicines and other supplies gifted by India stands at about US$ 5 million.

Indian Rapid Response Teams have so far been deployed in Maldives and Kuwait at the requests of their Governments.

Our leadership continues to remain in touch with friends and partners across the world about dealing with pandemic. Our Prime Minister has spoken to Presidents of the USA, Maldives, South Africa, Egypt, South Korea, and others; Kings of Jordan and Bahrain; Sultan of Oman and Prime Ministers of Bhutan, Uganda, Nepal, Japan, Australia, and others. Our Foreign Minister and our Foreign Secretary have spoken to their counterparts in several countries.

Parts of this article first appeared in Khabar Magazine (www.khabar.com).

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