The lockdown is set to continue in red zones and other areas of concern beyond May 3. Curbs would be stricter in states with a big spike in cases. And, with infections likely to peak again in June-July, a balance should be struck between restarting the economy and containing the COVID-19 spread.
With a week left in the second phase of the extended lockdown, these are some of the key takeaways from Monday’s videoconference between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Ministers, sources told The Indian Express. It was the fourth such meeting since March 22, two days before the lockdown was first imposed.
With Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attending the conference for the first time, sources said the Prime Minister assured that the state of the economy is good and there is no need to panic. “We have to give importance to the economy as well as continue the fight against COVID-19… We have to be brave and bring in reforms that touch the lives of common citizens,” Modi said.
On their part, many states suggested that the lockdown should continue with curbs being eased in green zones.
Gujarat, which has recorded 3,548 cases so far, sought a gradual and phased exit from the lockdown. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik proposed an extension by another month from May 3, and Meghalaya’s Conrad Sangma wanted the curbs “to continue with relaxation on activities in green zones or non-COVID-affected districts”.
Sources said almost all the states were of the opinion that restrictions on inter-state transportation, including by air and rail, should continue. Kerala submitted that it wanted to continue restrictions on inter-district and inter-state transport till May 15.
“Bihar made the point strongly that while the Disaster Management Act does not allow travelling from one place to another, one state is getting children from Kota, another is moving its migrant labour,” a senior state functionary, who attended the meeting, said in a reference to UP and MP.
Highlighting the importance of strictly enforcing guidelines in hotspots or red zone areas, the Prime Minister asked the states to work towards converting the red zones into orange zones and thereafter to green zones. Sources said the modalities of an exit strategy for green zones would be announced closer to May 3.
Modi underlined that the lockdown has yielded positive results as the country has managed to save thousands of lives in the past one-and-a-half months. Pointing out that India’s population is comparable to that of the combined population of several countries, Modi said the country has been able to protect its people because of timely measures taken.
“He, however, forewarned that the danger of the virus is far from over and constant vigilance is of paramount importance,” an official note released after the videoconference stated.
Sources quoted the Prime Minister as saying that he has learnt from experts that COVID-19 cases could peak again in June-July. “They feel that with the lockdown, the spike may be avoided for April-May, but when the lockdown is lifted in some places, it may spike in June,” sources said.
Referring to the Prime Minister’s remarks, the official note said: “He said that as per experts, the impact of coronavirus will remain visible in the coming months. Reiterating the mantra of do gaz ki doori (maintaining a 2-metre distance), he said that masks and face covers will become part of our lives in the days ahead.”
Modi also signalled that restrictions could be voluntary, too. “…Under the circumstances, everyone’s aim must be rapid responses. He pointed out that many people are self-declaring whether they have cough and cold or symptoms, and that this is a welcome sign,” the note said.
According to sources, states with a number of COVID-free districts, including from the Northeast, wanted some restrictions to be eased so that economic activities could be revived. Most states also favoured opening up zero-case districts (283 so far), limited relaxations in orange zones, and strict curbs in red zones with containment areas.
They suggested that whenever there is a fresh case in a green zone, or when an orange zone slips into red, there should be a swift crackdown in terms of restrictions and contact-tracing operations. According to the Health Ministry, orange zones are areas that have reported no case in 14 days and while green refers to those with no fresh case in 28 days.
“Most states felt that continuing with a stringent lockdown in districts with no cases does not make sense and therefore, a graded approach is the best way ahead. It should be status quo in containment zones unless they do not report a case in 28 days. Inter-state transport remains an issue because there are apprehensions in many states that there could be a fresh influx,” said sources.
The videoconference came on a day when 1,463 new cases were recorded in the last 24 hours, taking the total count to 28,380. The country, however, also recorded 60 deaths, the highest toll so far in a single day, taking the total number of fatalities to 886.
In Monday’s meeting, the chief ministers of nine states — Meghalaya, Mizoram, Puducherry, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Gujarat and Haryana — got a chance to speak. Others were given the option of either attending the meeting themselves or assigning the respective chief secretary or a state minister. Kerala, for instance, deputed its chief secretary while submitting its suggestions in writing.
There was also a presentation made, which compared the positive cases and mortality rate of 20 large countries across the world with those of India — “135 crore Indians, and 20 large countries put together that have that population”. “There, the positive cases were 23 lakh and in India it was 23,000… 100 times more in those countries. The deaths in those large countries were 250 times the deaths that have taken place in India,” sources said.
On the other issues that came up, sources said while Kerala wanted Indians from overseas to be brought back, Modi said it has to be done keeping in mind that their families are not under any risk.
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga told The Indian Express that he raised concerns about the porous international borders that the state shares with Myanmar and Bangladesh. “We only have one COVID-19 patient who is recovering… But we are concerned about sharing our borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, both of which are hotspots,” he said.
(With Esha Roy)
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