ISSN 2330-717X

Subnational Response To COVID-19 Outbreak: Lessons From The Indian State Of Odisha – OpEd


When a calamity hits a country, the central leadership comes to grips with the plight and exhibits itself as a role model. However, such tragedies come out to be a boon for political leadership at the subnational level also, giving them a virtuous opportunity to take decisive measures so that the situation remains under control, which in turn lifts the nation’s spirits. Odisha, a state in the eastern coastal part of India, has again proved why it is acknowledged as the best in the country for disaster preparedness and alleviation. Not even a year has passed after the cyclone Fani wreaked havoc in the state claiming 43 lives, and now Odisha has geared up again for another disaster – the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Way back in January 2020, when the World Health Organisation had announced there was no clear confirmation of human-to-human transmission of the novel COVID-19, the Odisha government had declared it was completely prepared to confront the novel virus. When three confirmed cases were identified in Malaysia, the state government authorities dropped a request to the Union Health Ministry to transform Bhubaneswar airport as a screening airport, one of the first in the country, since there was direct flight connectivity to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. 

That was the initial point, and more measures were on the way. The Health Department of Odisha government equipped necessities for treatment and quarantine at four major hospitals of the state – Capital Hospital in Bhubaneswar, SCB Medical College and Hospital in Cuttack, VSS Institute of Medical Science and Research in Burla, and District Headquarters Hospital in Jharsuguda. Besides, the department had also notified the authorities of Paradip Seaport to prepare quarantine facilities at their hospital. All these measures were implemented before the first recorded case in India, which occurred on January 30, 2020, in Kerala.

In February, India had only a few positive cases and the central government was still speculating whether to announce a national emergency or not. Nevertheless, on March 3, the Odisha government released a special website, The unusual fact was that there was no such website operated by the central government at that time. The portal made compulsory for all who were entering the state from foreign countries to register on their database and to self-quarantine at home. Odisha, being ruled by a regional political party Biju Janta Dal (BJD) for over 20 years, adheres to the ideology of social democracy, consequently announced a reward of Rs. 15,000 to those who obeyed the directive. According to the state health department, more than 4,000 people had registered within a week. Also, the state government widely propagated a COVID-19 helpline number, which led to thousands of people ringing up every day to seek details on preventive measures.

Chief Minister of Odisha Naveen Patnaik, who has been a long-time advocate of the renowned maxim “prevention is better than cure”, declared the outbreak as a disaster on March 13 under the provision of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and announced the complete shutdown of educational institutions and public places, by invoking the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897. It was one of the first states in India to follow the commands of the Central government to implement such measures, which was notified on March 11. The decision was surprising to many since there was no single positive case recorded in the state at that time. On the other hand, it was unsurprising for the residents of Odisha, since the state has a history of taking preventive measures before any impending disaster.

Odisha reported its first COVID-19 patient on March 16, after a researcher who returned from Italy and travelled to Bhubaneswar via train from Delhi was tested positive. Immediately, the state government initiated a contact tracing exercise and kept his family members under quarantine and round-the-clock observation. After the third positive case on March 21, Odisha announced a 70 per cent lockdown, and by the next day, the state government prolonged it to a week-long complete lockdown until March 29. After the Indian government announced a three-week nationwide lockdown starting from March 25 to April 14, Odisha on April 9 announced to extend the lockdown until April 30, hours before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s video conference to discuss the extension of lockdown with Chief Ministers. 

Until April 13, there were no new positive cases in Odisha and the tally remained at 54, one of the lowest counts in the country, out of which 17 have recovered and 1 has passed away. Mission Director of National Health Mission (NHM) Shalini Pandit stated that 80 per cent of COVID-19 patients in the state were asymptomatic and applauded the efforts of the state government. The medical authorities in the state have tested more than 5000 samples, and more than 120 persons are under isolation in different hospitals spread across the state. Moreover, the state authorities told that ample stock of vital medicines like anti-inflammatory, analgesics, and antibiotics was available in the hospitals which could be consumed over the next five months, with additional orders being placed for four more months of consumption. Also, there was no recorded shortage of N-95 masks, personal protective equipment kits, hand sanitizers, and essential equipment such as ICU ventilators, nebulisers, and oxygen concentrators. 

Additional measures taken by the state government were to provide an advance salary of 4 months to doctors and medical support staff, signing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with two private hospitals in the state to set up a dedicated facility for proper treatment of COVID-19 patients, along with an economic package for the lower working class, especially for the construction workers who went out of work due to the lockdown. CM Naveen Patnaik had also ordered the police to take severe action against mischief-mongers trying to provoke religious disharmony in the state after the issue of Tablighi Jamaat caught fire nationwide.

Odisha is known as the epicentre of disasters in India, primarily due to yearly cyclones and occasionally floods. The state had witnessed a huge loss of human lives during the 1999 cyclone, which was recorded as the most powerful tropical cyclone in the North Indian Ocean and among the most devastating in the region. But with the flow of time, Odisha has developed the best disaster mitigation and relief system in the country and was one of the first states to have their own disaster management authority in 1999. Since then, the initiatives led by the Odisha government to tackle disasters have received laurels not only from the Indian government but also from leading international organisations like the United Nations, World Bank, and WHO. No wonder, this time also they will overcome this situation, and thus continue their legacy of the best disaster-resilient state in India.

*Abhishek Mohanty is currently pursuing MA Political Governance at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, Moscow. Peviously he was a BRICS Youth Fellow at Fudan University, Shanghai during July-August 2019. His research focus is on Russian foreign and domestic policy, Geopolitics and geoeconomics of Post-Soviet Space and Indo-Pacific region, and Non-traditional security issues in South and Central Asia.

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