None of us expect our lives to return to what it was before we went into the 21-day lockdown, which is hopefully due to end on April 14-15. But there is unanimity amongst us that the pain was worth it.
The coronavirus menace, which has emerged as the biggest threat to humanity in recent times, can be beaten if we strictly adhere to the lockdown. That has helped in isolation of suspected contacts and led to the stricter quarantine of positive cases even though there have been 4,000-odd cases and over 100 deaths in India. Nevertheless, we have had our deeply worrying moments in the last few days ever since we came to know about the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi. This event has thus far been responsible for at least 1,000 cases and more than a dozen deaths.
But for this congregation, which happened despite the authorities clamping restriction on social gatherings, we could have been one of the few countries that could have claimed an early victory over the disease. There is still a strong possibility that India wins the battle earlier than other countries. The answer may lie in the outcomes awaited of the tests that have been conducted thus far and are being done in a more widespread and aggressive manner in clusters and containment zones in a few states.
Everyone agrees now that there is a pattern about the spread of the disease. It starts with rise in number of cases reaching a peak, followed by a plateau and then a fall. Have we have peaked as yet? We can know conclusively only when the results of the current testing are ready by April 8-10. But, even if the number of detected cases go up as a result of the widespread testing, the notso fast spike in the number of fatalities may give us some confidence to face the future. That brings us to the question about ending of the lockdown and the future scenario.
A few days ago, the Union Cabinet secretary was asked to clarify that there are no plans to extend the lockdown. This was after wild speculation that it could be extended upto three months. However, an exit strategy for a smooth end to the lockdown period was underscored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his interaction with the chief ministers last week. Modi appears to have told BJP workers inasmuch a day ago when he asked everyone to prepare for a “long haul.”
In China, too, the authorities in Wuhan had asked its residents to stay indoors even after a nine-week lockdown was lifted and public transport was partially restored. Fearing a second phase, the residents were asked to avoid any non-essential travel. In some countries, some novel ways of halving the number of people out on the roads are said to be under consideration.
The UK, which did not enforce social restrictions initially, is debating introduction of “immunity passports” as a way to end the lockdown. An immunity passport is supposed to be a certificate declaring that someone is no longer at risk of contracting coronavirus because they have already had it. It would exempt holders from restrictions on activity imposed by the government to contain the spread of the virus. The concept gained currency after the German public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, went for a mass study into how many people are already immune to COVID-19.
As the coronavirus can be asymptomatic, a test is required to show whether coronavirus antibodies are present in the blood of the individual. A positive test would indicate that they have already had the virus and therefore would be likely to have some degree of immunity. It would also mean that they were not infectious to others, experts say. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has himself just emerged from self-isolation after testing positive, suggested that “the immunity passport” could take the form of a wristband.
Those who have already lost their jobs or are desperate to return to work, would welcome the idea, of course. In fact, infected doctors and nurses are being tested in Italy’s Veneto region to see if they have developed resistance to the virus, so they could return to work.
But, in a country like India, how feasible or reliable would such a scheme be? The real challenges will include finding a reliable test to determine who has antibodies for the coronavirus, the level of immunity conferred by previous infection and how long it lasts. We have already been accused of not testing enough numbers of our population for the disease. More importantly, we will have to ask whether our overstretched health infrastructure can carry out the antibody tests in the general population. Of course, the Centre has allowed some states to try out the antibody testing kits. The bigger debate could be on whether we could have two categories of people infected with the virus — those who have them can return to a more normal life while others remain locked down?
That brings us to more feasible and doable concept of cluster containment. Those areas or cities that are still seen as hotspots, clusters and containment zones will have to remain under lockdown, which will be more rigorously enforced. Even if the lockdown is lifted partially, norms like social distancing will have to be followed as that is the only way to prevent the spreading of the disease. Accordingly, the administration identifies the most emergent hotspots and introduces restrictive quarantine rules. Subsequently, it includes delineation of the area with around 3 km radius. A buffer region of five km is also kept. The chosen spots will be critically monitored to avoid the transmission of infection — with the help of strong police presence for compliance.
A lockdown was necessary to limit the spread of the virus and save lives. But a long lockdown will wipe out the economy, and have a negative impact mentally on too many people.
Nobody knows it better than Modi who has repeatedly said India has prioritised saving lives over livelihood. Beyond a point, he knows that the damage caused by the lockdown will become unsustainable for the people. At the same time, the blanket lifting the lockdown means the risk of a fresh spike in the spread of the disease. Therefore, a calibrated approach could be the answer. For the moment, the lighting of lamps on April 5 evening was a way of self-assurance that we shall overcome with our own set of rules for containment.
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi.