It is good to see India taking early action, even though there is no denying that we should have anticipated the hardship caused to poor workers and migrant labour, and taken preventive steps.
But these early actions have to be carefully managed if we do not want the virus to be dwarfed by an economic collapse.
We have to take lessons from countries that have managed to control the epidemic with nuanced action. Once the three weeks are over, it is important to take steps to unwind the all-India lockdown in a measured way and have more targeted lockdowns.
With only a week to go for the 21-day curfew to end:
- Like other countries battling the scourge of covid-19, India faces the daunting question of when and how the current lockdown is best lifted.
- Neither can the pathogen be given a free run, nor can the economy be kept closed beyond a point.
- The spread of covid-19 has resulted in countries deciding to announce “lockdowns” to stop or at least slow the mass spread of the disease. The precise nature of the shutdown is not identical in every country, though.
- India has announced a temporary countrywide lockdown, with only “essential commodities/services” and their supply chains exempt.
- This is based on the advice of the medical establishment, which is reported to believe that this it is the best or only way to “flatten the curve” of transmission, given that we are a relatively poor country with limited health infrastructure compared to rich countries.
- Plans seem afoot to shift from an all-India closure to a strategy of “aggressive containment” of infections within clusters marked out on the country’s map, with people only in these kept under strict isolation (and buffer zones around them).
- Just 64 districts are reported to account for over four-fifths of officially recorded cases, and so such an idea seems to make sense.
- Yet, any hasty action or planning failure could undo past measures and expose us to worse. Caution should guide any relaxation of restrictions.
After 21-day Lockdown:
Phased Lockdown Exit:
A senior government official stated that the idea is to slow down the opening. The plan could involve opening some areas and operating the hotspot areas under some restrictions. Also, since the senior citizens are more vulnerable, they may have to stay put until further notice.
Identify the Hotspot and Minimize the Spread: PM Modi expressed his gratitude to the state governments for supporting the lockdown and limiting the spread.
However, the situation is still worrisome and hence the entire nation needs to work together on this. The states asked the PM for financial assistance and provide testing kits.
Also, Modi stated that the states must work on a war footing and ensure minimum loss of life by identifying the hotspots and containing the spread.
Separate Hospitals for COVID-19: Further, the PM Modi highlighted the need for dedicating separate hospitals for COVID-19.
Also, centre mentioned the importance of the availability of medical products, inputs for the manufacture of medicines and medical equipment in the states.
Besides, advised the states to come up with alternatives for APMC for procuring grains and suggested creating pooling platforms for rural areas for the same.
PM Modi asked the states to contact social welfare organizations to battle against the pandemic. In all, he focused on gradually ending the lockdown.
Moving from Social to Selective Isolation:
- A selective isolation strategy thus proposed would only be effective if it is accompanied by supportive measures for the young.
- These include tracking through smartphone apps and compensating employees for the risk undertaken by offering wage support.
- Once a minimum set of employees return to work and firms resume operations, older employees can resume work from their homes.
- As more countries pick up this strategy globally, with the help of task forces facilitating it domestically, health and economic damage would be minimised.
- Rapid-spread localities may need speedy tests, while buffer zones could have a few swabs taken of local residents picked randomly, just to see if a hotspot has expanded.
- Supreme levels of hygiene would need to be maintained for all such exercises. For this, India must assure an adequate supply of masks and other personal protection gear to all risky areas.
- Orders have reportedly been placed and shipments are on their way. So also, for ventilators, needed to help the severely ill breathe.
- Reassuring as this is, sufficient equipment needs to reach the frontlines before the country switches tack in its fight against covid-19.
An alternative safety regime for India after we lift the lockdown:
The security measures instituted in India are meant to protect us against a viral threat.
This threat is compounded by irresponsible foreign tourists and citizens who refuse to take the risk of person-to-person transmission seriously enough, and do not take precautionary measures such as home quarantining themselves.
A lockdown also has social costs which have not been accounted for at all here.
Therefore, we must take stringent measures and all of us must practise socio-spatial distancing to ensure that the curve is indeed flattened convincingly enough for all restrictions to finally be removed.
Steps need to take in coming days:
Random sample checks need to be done widely across India so that we are not in for shock eruptions later.
Should the overall picture grant India the confidence to lift the nationwide lockdown, what happens next would depend on how well the new strategy works. Strict safety norms would still need to be observed by all in any case.
As for the hotspots kept locked down, not only must they be identified accurately, the tracking and treatment of patients within these would have to be combined with a well-optimized use of test kits.
An early announcement to shift to the alternative we propose could help ensure the adequate production and distribution of masks, thermal scanners, test kits, ventilators and protective gear for health workers.
Following South Korea, we need to locate regions and pockets which have to be kept under close watch and locked down, with others being opened up with rules of behaviour in place—masks, social distancing, quarantining those unwell—so that the rest of India can get back to producing goods and services, and help the locked-down areas.
The Centre has complex operations to plan and coordinate. Its need to work with various states adds to the task’s complexity. But we must leave no scope whatsoever for mishaps.
Nor for an overzealous use of strictures and surveillance, both of which need to have their expiry dates defined by some public criterion.
People who must endure containment need special care not, say, the scare of police drones summoning batons. Hotspots must not begin to feel like open-air prisons.
India has done well so far in its fight against covid-19. However, as Prime Minister said, it will indeed be a long fight.