When you read this, we will be in the 47th day of lockdown with seven days more to go.
When the Prime Minister announced Lockdown 1.0 (we did not then know it would be the first lockdown) on national television on March 24, he had spelt out the objectives. He said, “As per health experts, a period of at least 21 days is extremely critical to break the infection chain of coronavirus.” On the next day, speaking to his constituents in Varanasi, he said, “Mahabharata war took 18 days to conclude, the war against coronavirus will take 21 days.”
The key words were “to break the infection chain” and “conclude”. Most people took his words at face-value and believed that the infection chain would be broken in 21 days and the battle against the virus would be won.
Real Objectives & Mistakes
Of course, medical and health experts knew that the infection chain would not be broken in 21 days. They persuaded the Prime Minister to extend the lockdown. On April 14, again on national television, he announced Lockdown 2.0 and said, “It is clearly evident from the experience of the past few days, that we have chosen the correct path… if we continue to be patient and follow rules, we will be able to defeat even a pandemic like corona.”
The key words were “we have chosen the correct path”, “be patient” and “defeat even a pandemic like corona”.
Medical and health experts were sceptical. They knew that the real objectives were to spread awareness and augment, rapidly, the medical and health infrastructure. At the risk of repetition, let me say a lockdown was not a cure, it was only a pause that gave us sufficient time to be prepared to deal with the number of infected persons at its peak.
The government made some unintended, but crucial, mistakes. While Lockdown 1.0 was anticipated, its sudden imposition with barely four hours’ notice was a mistake. The failure to put money in the bank accounts of the poor, under the Financial Action Plan of March 25, was a grave mistake. Not arranging transport to enable the migrant workers to go back to their home states when the spread of the virus was extremely low was the gravest mistake.
The official number of infected persons on certain milestone dates were
March 24: 536
Lockdown begins March 25
April 14: 10,815
Lockdown ends, continued
May 03: 40,263
Lockdown ends, continued
May 08: 56,342 at 8 am
The rise in the numbers was expected by medical and health experts. Note that Lockdown 3.0 was announced not by the Prime Minister, but through a notification signed by the Home Secretary. No objectives were spelt out, no exit strategy was outlined. These were unusual and puzzling.
Experts have cautioned that the number of infected persons will continue to rise until humankind finds a vaccine or, as some experts have said, Indians develop sufficient herd immunity. The number is rising despite Lockdown 1.0 or 2.0 or 3.0. In the five days of Lockdown 3.0 from May 4 to May 8, we have added an average of 3,215 per day.
Mercifully, compared to other countries, the number of infected persons, as a proportion of 130 crore people, is still low presumably because the testing rate is low. Also, the fatality rate among infected persons is only about 3.36 per cent.
There are two courses open to the Prime Minister when Lockdown 3.0 comes to an end:
– Announce Lockdown 4.0 when the current lockdown ends on May 17; or
– Lift the lockdown, resume nearly all economic and commercial activity, reactivate all supply chains of goods and services, allow public transport by road, rail and air, and be prepared to treat the infected persons. In certain extremely affected ‘containment zones’, like Dharavi, it may be necessary to continue the restrictions after evacuating the persons testing positive to quarantine centres or hospitals.
It is a difficult choice to make. The first option may be logical if the curve of the number of new infections is flat or begins to show a declining trend, but there is no evidence of that. Another lockdown will lead to a complete collapse of the economy that is already tottering. The colour-zoning of India (red, orange and green) and the limited relaxations with several caveats have not helped re-start economic activity. In the last 47 days, more MSMEs have been pushed over the brink, more millions of poor people have been pushed into destitution, and more thousands of middle-class families have been pushed into indebtedness. If the lockdown is not lifted, there may be defiance on a larger scale than at present.
The second option will undoubtedly benefit the economy, but we may see a quicker rise in the average number of new infections per day, some green zones may turn orange and some orange zones may turn red, straining the resources of the state and district administrations, and Covid-19 hospitals that are under-utilised today may be filled with patients. The onus will be on every individual to protect oneself as best as possible.
Sitting on a decision tree is an unenviable perch, but that is where the Prime Minister sits. For the sake of the people of India, I wish he will take the right decision.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 10, 2020, under the title ‘After lockdown 3.0, more or end?