Are we paying the price for a premature lockdown?

When the national lockdown was imposed on March 24, with four hours’ notice, the country had less than 200 positive cases and a two percent fatality rate. The world marvelled at India’s determination in imposing such a strict control on a billion people. Two months later, the number of virus positive cases is nearing 1.5 lakhs and the fatality rate has inched up to 3 percent. Now the world is not so sure whether the strict lockdown has achieved what it set out to do.

The stated goal was to “flatten the curve”, i.e. decrease the upward slope of the spread of the virus. Since the virus mainly spreads from people to people contact, the method was to isolate people in their own homes, observe social distancing, restrict movement. Three fourth of the economy was shut down. It was as if collectively the nation was holding its breath. But after holding our breath for two months, we are feeling breathless, the economy is choking, having run out of its oxygen. The four-hour notice given on March 24, also meant that people did not have any time to plan their own lockdown. Many families suddenly found themselves separated, since one or two members were stuck in a different city due to office duty. Those on sales trips could not go back, and may have been stuck in a strange city for two months now. Worst of all affected were the urban poor. Since their incomes, jobs and livelihoods suddenly shut down, they faced an acute economic crisis which soon threatened to become a food crisis. There was no transport available for them to go back “home” i.e. to their native places. Only when the images of distressed migrant workers and their families, walking on highways for hundreds of kilometres, were flashed on television screens did the governments rush in with food, shelter and train facilities.

Policy makers responding to an uncertain crisis need to keep some instruments in their arsenal unused. It is like not using up all ammunition early on, and keeping the powder keg dry, in case the crisis or war, worsens. Did we use up our strongest ammunition too early?

Hindsight is twenty-twenty (pardon the pun on the year). Could we not anticipate the economic cost of imposing a national shutdown with just a couple of hundred cases? That too this was an imported disease, which had nothing to do with remote rural corners of the country. Could we not have done a better scenario planning? Could we not have focused the stringent lockdown selectively only where there was international traffic, and done intensive testing there itself, and let the rest of the country’s economy run as normal? Was it worth imposing such a huge economic cost on the whole nation, especially the poor and vulnerable daily wage earners, to save COVID-19 deaths? Those deaths are very visible, and there is a death watch with daily publication of statistics. The invisible deaths are in increased hunger and anxiety. The CMIE reports that more than 12 crore people have lost jobs, some of them permanently. The lockdown may also have led to increased incidences of domestic violence as tempers and stress rise, heightened by the anxiety of the economic situation.

Unfortunately, we now find that the virus has spread to more than five hundred and fifty districts. The red zones are in most urban clusters with high densities of population. Dharavi, a Mumbai slum area of two square kilometres which houses seven lakh people, is a red hot zone of transmission. But Dharavi is also a thriving sub-economy with manufacturing operations in leather, plastics and handicraft. Those livelihoods have been dealt a deathblow due to the lockdown. The rising graph of positive cases will also add pressure to the healthcare infrastructure in large cities.

The lockdown has been imposed with the dual legal regime of the Disaster Management Act (2005) and the Epidemic Diseases Act (1897). The latter is a British era pre-constitutional law, whose imposition and the rules framed currently actually violate some constitutional rights, like right to move freely. The DMA was supposed to be applicable for one State at a time of a cyclone or earthquake, and not meant for the whole nation, and that too for an indefinite period. The Home Ministries of the Centre and State governments have issued more than 4000 circulars already specifying the rules and regulations, the dos and don’ts. Imagine that, even if there is a death in the family, the dead body cannot be moved without a special pass from the police, in a curfew. The management of the pandemic has put such tremendous pressure on the police, doctors, nurses, medical workers and other municipal officers that after two months, there is an element of fatigue and exhaustion. And the essential nature of a “licence and permit” imposition has meant that there is inevitable abuse and corruption too. There are cases for food scramble and occasional riots as well.

All of which leads us to the present dilemma. We are at a stage where not only has the curve not flattened, but it is rising rather fast. If there is a reason for a lockdown, it is now. But can we afford this cost at this late stage? Or can we go the Swedish way, of letting people take responsibility for observing sanitation and social distancing protocols? Can we suspend the DMA and EDA regime, and let States and municipalities develop flexible protocols responding to local conditions? We need to accept that herd immunity is the only lasting solution and it will take time. We have fought TB, dengue and malaria (although these still exist, and cause more fatalities than COVID-19) and we live with these diseases. Our youngsters have relatively better immunity against COVID-19. Our national statistics in per capita terms are much better than even advanced Singapore. We have let our fight against COVID-19 get too spooked by fear and panic, which has led to the premature, excess use of lockdown. From now, the narrative needs to be not just fight to “win the war”, but to “adapt to the pandemic” and develop herd immunity. It’s going to be a long summer.

The writer is a senior economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution. Syndicate: The Billion Press

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