Today is day 14 of the nationwide lockdown. The first week was full of chaos and confusion. Social distancing guidelines were flouted as migrant workers headed to their homes in defiance of the lockdown. There were many other instances of people breaking physical distancing norms. On the occasion of Ram Navami, there were reports of long queues and crowds of devotees in temples in many parts of the country. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown, there were officially counted 500 cases of coronavirus infection and 10 deaths by the contagion. The numbers were so low because testing was very limited. Since then, with each passing day, the number of reported cases of infection and deaths have been increasing at a faster rate. As of Monday, there were 4,067 confirmed cases and 109 deaths. Estimates from independent groups of scientists and others suggest the actual number of infections could be around 20,000 by now.
Testing is still limited. Independent estimates and those from the Indian Council for Medical Research have indicated that the lockdown, if adhered to well, could reduce the number of infections at the peak of the pandemic by 70 to 80 per cent, depending on the degree of compliance with physical distancing. Containing the spread of virus in community has been the major objective of the lockdown. According to experts, India has at least three to four weeks before the coronavirus outbreak hits the peak. It is absolutely necessary to use this window of opportunity to create a large, affordable and easily available testing infrastructure, intensify efforts to identify infected people, trace their contacts and isolate them and prepare for the avalanche. Medical experts are of the view that if India fails to fill the gaps in its healthcare system and capacity, the pandemic will exact a heavy toll. Although the proportion of coronavirus patients who die has averaged between 2 and 3 per cent globally, they were in places where the countries have huge economic resources and the health system is better equipped. India does not have the resources,nor a strong health system of coronavirus-affected high-income countries.
In his message to the nation on Friday, the Prime Minister stressed that people should not flout social distancing norms which, he insisted, is the only way to break the chain of coronavirus. This is also the WHO’s view; it has also insisted on increased tracing, testing and treating of infected people. But what does holding candles and lamps have to do to curb a medical emergency and the resulting economic fallout? A united fight against coronavirus and its impact needs upgrading of our healthcare system, medical equipment for doctors, adequate facilities for treatment and a suitable, if not generous, economic package to address the difficulties of small businesses, poor people’s financial anxieties and loss of livelihood. In none of his three addresses to the nation so far, has Modi focused on real issues relating to inadequacy of our Medicare system, poor people’s sufferings or the steps his government would take to ease their pain.
Real impact of the lockdown will be felt over a much longer term than the three-month period the government has announced its minuscule relief package for. The lockdown does not affect the rich and the middle class. That it affects the poor in the worst possible way was proved by images of migrant workers trekking hundreds of miles on foot to reach their villages. Apart from driving home the desperation they face, the impact of the lockdown on their livelihood has highlighted the reality of a large section of population: poor, helpless and desperate to survive. Their only lifeline is the daily wages they earn. Once that lifeline is snapped, a vast section of the population has no means to survive.
Coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted India’s limitations in dealing with the crisis. This raises an important question: was India well-prepared to endure a 21-day lockdown? Not really. That the lockdown was necessary goes without saying. That it was announced with little preparation also goes without saying. That the government responded hurriedly and out of panic to prevent an imminent virus outbreak and a medical emergency is not a far-fetched hunch. That people needed to be informed a few days in advance to figure out the fallout of the lockdown on their lives is an undeniable fact. Probably, the government fondly believed that people would calmly stay put after the lockdown and bear the hardships, as they did in the aftermath of demonetisation in 2016. So, what’s common between demonetisation and lockdown? The lack of forethought and planning.
A simple fact sheet can show the unpreparedness of the government, which told us on March 13 that COVID-19, declared by the WHO a pandemic on March 11, was not a “health emergency yet”. Many state assemblies, including Delhi, and Parliament continued to be in session till March 23; Shivraj Singh Chauhan was also sworn in as Madhya Pradesh chief minister on the same day. Most major temples in different states remained open for devotees as late as March 20. The Tablighi Jamaat had planned its religious congregation, attended by a large gathering, including foreigners, from March 13 to 16. There was no ban on religious gatherings in Delhi at the time. The government made us believe that things were normal and no one spoke about physical distancing. So, how fair is it to accuse Tablighi Jamaat of negligence and defiance of rules? A day after the lockdown was declared, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adiyanath participated in a ceremony to shift the idol of Ram to a temporary structure in Ayodhya. Can rules be differentfor different people? The point is: the Tablighi Jamaat was not alone in taking the COVID-19 threat casually.
The first case of coronavirus was reported in India on January 30;thenumber reached 100 onMarch14.Over thenextnine days,the total infected cases were reported to be 500.In the first 10 days of lockdown, the number again quintupled to 2,500. Using this growth curve, by the time the lockdown completes 21 days, India is likely to have around 12,500 infected cases. In the first phase of the progress of coronavirus, the number of cases keep increasing at a steady or accelerating rate. In the second phase, the total number of cases continue to increase but the growth declines. In the third phase, the tally of new cases daily begins to decline. Italy and Spain are said to be in the third phase. US, Britain, France and Germany are in the first phase. So is India.The growth curve probably would have been the same even without the “super-spreader” Tablighi Jamaat event. Hopefully, with lockdown in place till mid-April, India should be at the end of the first phase. If that happens, it will be a good news. Given India’s systemic limitations, lockdown and physical distancing is our best defense against coronavirus. This means we are likely to exit the lockdown in a phased manner.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.