India's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been heartening and has thus far belied dire predictions of a country-wide 'corona conflagration'. Given its population density, the high degree of human mobility and a chronically undisciplined attitude to civic regulations – all conducive to community transmission – India has done better than expected.
The Centre is now seriously considering an extension of the lockdown, following a demand from the state governments.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held a multi-party meeting (via videoconferencing) to discuss the proposal, which has evoked mixed reactions. In the past week, India's containment efforts have been severely criticised by the western media. Rather than acknowledging its responsible handling of the pandemic, they have been at pains to question the measures instituted by the government.
For example, a fortnight into the UK's own lockdown, a British newspaper described India's lockdown as 'brutal', with 'cataclysmic' consequences for the poor. The UK itself has a breadline population of 14 million and 3,20,000 homeless, who are facing a closure of lifesaving services. The palm for such agenda-driven coverage goes to a US publication, which expressed outrage over the treatment meted out to Tablighi Jamaat members.
Even as health workers raced to track down coronavirus-affected Tablighi members who had attended a conference in Delhi's Nizamuddin in violation of norms – arguably endangering the lives of millions – it condemned the “witch hunt” against the attendees. Contrary to the perception of the western media, most people acknowledge that the lockdown is necessary, given the exceptionally high risk of community transmission. Citizens have been singularly disciplined.
Admittedly, there have been a few glitches and collateral damage (most of it unavoidable). Migrant workers were allowed to head home despite the lockdown and religious meetings – notably the one in Nizamuddin – were not detected by the local police or intelligence agencies until it was too late. The peaceful and relatively stoic acceptance of the lockdown is a testimony to India's resilience.
Accustomed to everyday uncertainties, its citizens are at their best in times of crisis, better able to handle disruptions than those who live in more ordered societies. When it comes down to the crunch, they pull together and act in concert. For instance, citizens' groups have reached out to the less fortunate, in terms of distributing food, medicines and masks.
Credit must be given to PM Modi for his efforts to keep up the public morale. While a section of politicians and the western media have speculated that the hardships caused by the lockdown have eroded Modi's popularity, the response to his proposals for a shout-out to frontline health workers argues otherwise.
Similarly, his call to show solidarity in the face of the pandemic by lighting candles, appears to have rallied the population. However, after more than two weeks, citizens are getting restive, particularly those who are away from their families. Supply lines for non-perishables are drying up, perhaps because of hoarding.
And there is no doubt that the longer the lockdown endures, the longer it will take for the Indian economy to recover. But the prospect of cross-border movement has provoked state governments to request an extension of the lockdown. In some states, entire villages have been cordoned off after coronavirus cases, possibly linked to the en masse 'return of the native', were detected.
With more instances of community transmission coming to light, an extension may well prove necessary. The lockdown cannot continue indefinitely, nor will it. Researchers are under intense pressure to develop effective antivirals and/or vaccines. A number of pharma giants are racing against time – and each other – to come up with viable treatments.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced SOLIDARITY, a global megatrial of the four most promising treatments for coronavirus. It is the largest effort of its kind to date, involving global cooperation and data sharing. It's too early in the day to estimate the trajectory of the pandemic, but it is clear that the government and citizens must work in concert to limit its spread.
The government's job is to insulate the poorest sections from the effects of the lockdown, keep supply lines open, support health workers and researchers as they battle the pandemic and to prepare for the future. But it can only do so with public contribution, which involves sacrificing mobility, doing without some of the goods and services to which we are accustomed and most of all, keeping calm. The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.