An informal group of Union Ministers has been brainstorming on the issues arising out of the nationwide lockdown to counter the coronavirus outbreak and exploring the possible next steps and options after the 21-day period ends April 14.
“This (nationwide lockdown) cannot continue for an indefinitely long period. But it also doesn’t appear advisable to lift it from everywhere in one go,” said a source aware of the deliberations in the informal group headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
The committee met for the third time on friday and is likely to meet early next week again. It is learnt that the group may be in a position to make up its mind only after looking at the corona numbers — rate of growth of new cases, extent of the spread — by April 10.
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More so, when currently, positive cases have been reported from little over 200 of the over 700 districts across the country.
“Given that there could be asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 in areas/hotspots and positive cases, these will have to be dealt with differently. Rural areas will have to be dealt with separately. Smaller shops need a different response than what needs to be done for malls or shopping complexes,” said the source.
“For example, large shopping malls could pose a challenge in maintaining social distancing. There could be intra-district movements allowed where there are no cases, but inter-district movement? Not sure. Also, depending upon the spread, different situations prevail in different states after April 14. All these factors have to be considered,” said the source.
Directions have already been issued relaxing movement of farm labour given the necessity of farm operations and also the broad pattern so far that rural areas and smaller towns with low population densities are not reporting any significant outbreak.
“The economic reality is that for a large section of the population, there is little cushion for a long duration of lockdown. Many of them barely scrape through each month. This is a broad understanding within the group,” said another source aware about the deliberations.
“But given that the numbers are rising and there is a spread in many states, caution has to be observed. If it doesn’t get much out of control and the curve signals flattening, we could see an easing,” said the source.
For this group of Ministers, the first phase of the lockdown – the issue of migrants movement – is almost over. “That was an issue in the first phase. It has now been attended to by and large,” said the source highlighting how shelters and food arrangements have been made to arrest large-scale movement that initially threatened to undermine the lockdown.
The group considers the period till April 14 as the second phase which has its own challenges for unaffected population and those affected.
“As for the unaffected population, there is disruption but key issues of supply have been resolved. The other challenge is around the affected population and health infrastructure for them. Availability of testing kits, trained health workers in case of cases emerging in newer areas, identifying asymptomatic cases, testing, tracing and isolating them – that remains a focus area,” said the source.
Sources said the Ministers were using their ministries and political networks to gauge the situation before providing guidance to shape the government’s policy prescriptions.
Besides Rajnath Singh, the group comprises Home Minister Amit Shah, Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar, HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank, Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar, WCD Minister Smriti Irani and Animal Husbandry Minister Giriraj Singh among others.
Interacting with Chief Ministers over video-conference Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested the need to “formulate a common exit strategy to ensure staggered re-emergence of the population” when the lockdown ends after April 14.
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