In his speech delivered ‘virtually’ on July 27 to flag off ‘high-throughput’ testing facilities in Mumbai, Kolkata and Noida, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that India is in a ‘better position than other countries’ in the war against coronavirus pandemic. Claiming that his decision to go for a nationwide lockdown at the ‘right time’ saved India from the worst of COVID-19, the prime minister said the ‘world is praising us’. How far is this claim true? Or has the world started noticing how the caseload is increasing quite rapidly in India? Even the current rate could be an underestimate, since India is still not testing enough, given the size of our population. With more than 50,000 cases reported daily currently, India has rapidly risen through the ranks of worst-affected countries to occupy the third place in the world, behind the US and Brazil. This is despite the fact that India has had a stringent lockdown lasting 68 days from March 25 to May 31.
Whether it’s the prime minister, the health minister, health ministry officials or NITI Aayog members, time and again they all have compared India’s lower infection and mortality rates—around 3 percent and 2 percent respectively—with those regions or countries where it is higher, thus conveniently ignoring the fact that many countries are doing better than India and some countries have done spectacularly well in recovering from the worst COVID-19 impact. In a list of 213 countries and territories ranked from the worst to the best on five broad measures, India’s performance doesn’t appear good at all: India is third in total cumulative as well as active cases; our mortality rate is sixth highest in the world; there are 104 countries doing better than India in terms of total cases per million population; and 105 countries are ahead of India, including some densely populated ones like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Japan and Vietnam, in terms of total deaths per million population.
During the lockdown, if the exponential growth of caseload and mortality was controlled to some extent, the phased unlocking of the country has witnessed rising trajectory of infections and deaths over the last two months. There is no denying that the nationwide lockdown succeeded in subduing the transmission chain of the virus and gave time for preparedness to healthcare facilities. But whether such a strict lockdown was necessary at an early phase of the pandemic is debatable. The official view is that the lockdown was absolutely necessary because, according to NITI Aayog member Dr. Vinod K Paul, the doubling time of cases at just three days in mid-March was pointing towards an imminent trajectory of an overwhelming caseload and excessive mortality. But independent experts disagree: some have said that the lockdown was premature, while some have observed that instead of a stringent nationwide lockdown, there should have been localised lockdowns in containment zones (states and cities) where the virus was spreading.
In their view, a warm third world country like India followed a different trajectory when it comes to spread of the virus. The spread was slower because of the relatively younger age profile of our population and innate immunity. So, borrowing the lockdown model of European countries, based on doomsday predictions from mathematical models, without considering ground reality was bound to land India in trouble. India followed the European model of shutting almost everything when the daily cases per million were considerably less than 50 till the end of April, while Italy, Spain, France, Germany and UK implemented lockdowns when these countries witnessed sustained increase in the daily number of fresh cases. The decision to unlock was equally bizarre. All scientific models, according to experts, advise unlocking only when there is a sustained decrease in the daily number of fresh cases. But India started unlocking when daily cases per million reached around 150.
While rich European nations succeeded in flattening the curve of daily cases during the lockdown period and started opening their economies in phases only after the pandemic was brought under control, post-unlocking India is far from flattening the curve. On the contrary, in absolute numbers and with doubling rate at around 21 days, India is still registering rising number of daily infections. Therefore the question: did the lockdown yield desired results? The official view is that it did but data suggests that instead of controlling the spread of the pandemic, it seems to have made it worse: two weeks after the start of the lockdown, infection rate started picking up and since then there has been no pause in its upward climb. This means the lockdown was imposed too early and in a hurry without realising the administrative challenges to implement it effectively, it was also lifted bit too early.
When the ministry of home affairs issued an order announcing a phased reopening on May 31, except in containment zones, in the preceding 24 hours India had recorded 10,956 new cases and 265 fatalities. On May 31, the total cumulative positive cases were 173,763 and 4,971 fatalities. So when Rahul Gandhi tweeted a graphic saying, ‘this is what a failed lockdown looks like’, he implied that the lockdown was a ‘spectacular’ failure. That was on June 5 and since then India has witnessed phased unlocking and a steady spread of the virus to newer areas, smaller cities and towns. The numbers capture the real picture: cumulative caseload is over 1.8 million, deaths are at 38,135, recovered cases are 1.1 million and active caseload stands at more than half a million. How did this happen when India was one of the first emerging economies to announce the lockdown? In simple words, it was wrong to mimic and try to outdo rich European and North American nations in terms of severity of the lockdown.
In fact, according to experts, the way the lockdown was executed, it became a source of virus spread: by having people huddle together in densely populated cities like Mumbai and Delhi, and then allowing the same people travel hundreds of miles to their homes, the pandemic was made worse. There was a case for a lockdown but experts say it should have been carefully targeted and curated for different states. So while the lockdown did not yield desired results, it ended up delivering a massive economic shock to the nation. This double shock is evident in the data. Much before the pandemic hit India, the country’s growth rate was on a steady falling trajectory and now it has dropped further lower. The IMF has predicted that India will end up with a growth rate of –4.5 percent in 2020-21, which will be the lowest since 1979.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.