It is not easy to see clearly through the fog of fear that this pandemic has created, but what is becoming evident is that India cannot afford this lockdown any longer. It has already destroyed the livelihoods of millions of our poorest citizens, caused untold suffering for millions of healthy citizens, and if it continues to be extended, the government of India will be too broke to help anyone. There are now signs that the government is running out of money. If this were not true there would have been no reason last week for desperate migrant workers to be charged for their train tickets home. And, there would have been no reason for the price of diesel and petrol to be raised sharply at a time when the price of crude oil is the lowest it has ever been.
What makes all this worse is that the lockdown has slowed but not controlled the spread of Covid-19. Numbers continue to rise. There are those ensconced in the safety of government offices in Delhi who still like to claim that unless the lockdown continues millions of people will die. As someone who has a healthy disdain for our mighty mandarins, I am beginning to suspect that they want this lockdown to continue simply because it enhances and centralises the immense powers they already enjoy.
In exalted isolation they do not see that the longer the lockdown continues the more difficult an exit strategy will become. We see this in the confused attempts at relaxing lockdown restrictions in a manner that makes them pointless. There is no point in making long lists of businesses that can start functioning if they happen to be in ‘red zones’ and if transport systems continue to be totally frozen, and workers continue to migrate in the opposite direction. In Karnataka last week, the government stopped migrants from boarding the trains arranged to take them home and the result was that they decided to start walking home. They have been walking home since the first lockdown began despite being brutally treated by police and despite quarantine restrictions in their home states.
It is time to face some hard truths about Covid-19. It is going to be among us in every country in the world for a very long time. In India we have learned to live with horrible health problems and statistics. Tuberculosis kills more than a million Indians every year and at least 200,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday from diarrhoea or pneumonia. Malaria is now less fatal than it used to be but lethal forms of it continue to kill children regularly in small towns and villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. So, let us get used to the idea of living with one more disease.
What has gone wrong all over the world with this new virus is that a stigma has got attached to it that is almost as bad as the stigma that we Indians continue to attach to leprosy. If a single nurse or doctor is infected with the virus in a hospital, it is closed down and sanitised. Is this necessary? In the village in which I have been locked down, since that first lockdown began, ordinary people have become so terrified of the virus that they want people who have it to be treated as criminals. They believe that they have brought it to the village from Mumbai out of irresponsibility. There is no question that Covid-19 is a particularly contagious virus but the stigma must go because the virus will be with us until there is a vaccine or a cure. From all accounts we have to wait for at least a year for either of those things to happen.
Meanwhile, in India we need to examine how Sweden has dealt with Covid-19 and see how that model can be adapted for our own needs. There has been no lockdown in Sweden. Schools, parks, bars, restaurants and shops have remained open, with health officials trusting people to take their own preventive measures. Sweden has suffered fewer deaths than Italy, Spain or the United Kingdom where there have been lockdowns.
In India if we continue with what is believed to be the severest lockdown of any country, we could end up with an economic situation in which millions of very poor people will be pushed back under that awful poverty line. They could become more desperate than ever because, if the government of India runs out of money, how will it continue to fund those vast welfare schemes that are currently the only safety net?
It is not just poor people who are suffering. The middle classes and the richest of our industrialists are beginning to feel deep despair. It is much easier to close down a business than to reopen it after a long period of stagnation. And, the restrictions decided in Delhi that impose zones and bizarre regulations do not help. Every time the Home Ministry comes out with another one of its convoluted missives, it becomes clear that it is ‘babudom’ that has taken charge of running the country. At the best of times this is dangerous, as can be seen from the indefensible way in which they failed to anticipate the problems migrant workers would face. This is not the best of times. It is the worst.
This article appeared in the print edition of May 10, 2020, under the title ‘Lift the lockdown’