In battle against coronavirus, the PMO wages a perception war too

PM Modi has intensified his public outreach schemes

Narendra-Modi-TV-announcement-screens-Sanjay Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement on multiple TV screens | Sanjay Ahlawat

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has intensified its public outreach amidst growing criticism from the opposition ranks and social media that the Centre is waging the coronavirus war without a battleplan. Not only did PM Narendra Modi make calls to selected nurses, doctors, health and sanitation workers, he has also been airing those chats through tweets. Today, in his monthly Mann ki Baat, he made a few similar calls.

Last Tuesday, he phoned doctors, nurses and lab technicians, and conveyed his appreciation of their work. He promised to see if more tele-medicine and tele-consultation systems could be put in place. Meanwhile, his office has started putting out press statements listing the combat measures taken so far. The cosmetic measures aside, the PMO has now come out with a statement on the list of substantial steps taken by PM Modi in person, and by his office. “We have been proactive, but it was felt that there was a need for the public to know that we have been proactive,” said an officer. “Having kept away from celebrating Holi, the prime minister is leading social distancing by example,” said the officer. Initially, it was proposed that cabinet meetings too would be held though video-conference, but given the secretive nature of cabinet proceedings, the idea was dropped. Instead, meetings are now held in the large hall in the PM house with each minister sitting more than one metre away from another. Everyday, PM Modi phones more than 200 people, mostly governors, chief ministers and health workers, seeking first-hand reports from them instead of relying solely on officers and ministers, the statement said.

He held a video conference with heads of news channels and newspaper groups on March 24, where he appealed to them to be positive in their communication. Three days later, he conferred similarly with raido jockeys and All Indian Radio announcers. There is a "need to constantly celebrate the contribution of the local heroes at national level and boost their morale” he told the groups. Wherever possible, Modi has claimed to have telephoned COVID-19 patients, congratulating those who have recovered. In his video-conference with voters in Varanasi, he appealed for “resolve, restraint and sensitivity”.

These are in addition to the daily briefings he gets from the cabinet secretary and principal secretary, and the updates he receives from Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, who heads the group of ministers that decides policy guidelines on a daily basis. With the lockdown pains beginning to be felt, the PMO has pointed out that the step was taken since that was the only known effective measure to control the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, the Economic Response Task Force, set up under Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, is consulting various stakeholders before taking decisions. A national fund, called PM CARES Fund, has been created to deal with any distress situation. CARES stands for 'Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations', and the fund will be run as a trust with the prime minister as its chairman and the defence minister (Rajnath Singh), home minister (Amit Shah) and finance minister (Nirmala Sitharaman) as members. This fund has called for big and small donations from the public.

The press statement also pointed out that Rs 1.7 lakh crore has been set for quick cash transfer to bank accounts of the poor, providing thee-months' free ration of food grain, pulses and cooking gas under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. A major concern is the manufacture and supply of medicines under lockdown restrictions. A video meeting was held with pharma company heads on March 21, where they were asked to make more RNA testing kits, and to be on vigil against hoarders of medicines. Calling with Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathic doctors, he asked them utilise their network to propagate good health practices.

Chief ministers, at their March 20 video meeting, had asked the prime minister to procure more testing facilities and help provide greater support for the poor. While promising his bit, Modi also asked them to video-confer with trade bodies in their states to prevent black marketing and price-hiking.

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