The current war against COVID-19 isn’t a conventional one. Far from having a definite endgame, wherein the enemy signs an instrument of surrender, the novel coronavirus will continue to survive and infect well beyond the 21-day lockdown that ends on April 14. All the more reason, then, why the sweeping nationwide restrictions now on movement and production have to give way to a dynamic strategy that allows resumption of economic activity based on evolving and localised epidemiological conditions. The present generalised lockdown was, no doubt, necessary to slow the spread of the virus. It is early days yet before the key states are able to “flatten the curve” but there is some respite given that a fifth of the 700-plus districts in India have individually reported five or more positive COVID-19 cases. Further, these districts have accounted for 80 per cent of all confirmed cases so far. That’s why it is important to sequester these to ensure that the virus doesn’t reach here but there is an opportunity here too.
As an analysis in this newspaper has shown, many industrial centres — from Tiruppur and Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, to Kutch, Bharuch and Vapi in Gujarat and Baddi in Himachal Pradesh — have recorded few cases. Most cases are from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and other cities that are densely-populated, but do not have too many manufacturing units. The dispersal of manufacturing activity to relatively secluded areas — be it the special economic zones of Kandla, Mundra and Sri City or the Bhiwadi-Neemrana stretch of Rajasthan — should help in today’s situation. It is conducive for the reopening of factories once the lockdown period is over, while also minimising the risk of any uncontrolled spread of infection.
There are three things that the government can and should do after April 14. The first is to identify hotspots with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, where the current curbs will have to continue for some more time. The second is to permit organised manufacturing establishments, especially government and private corporate sector-owned entities, to start production. As enterprises registered under the Factories Act, these units are amenable to monitoring, which also makes it possible to strictly enforce social distancing rules on them. Third, a substantial scaling up of testing, including rapid serological diagnosis for detection of antibodies in the blood, is required. Without large-scale prevalence testing, it would be difficult to track hotspots, both existing and emerging, and respond with localised lockdowns or other necessary interventions. All this reinforces the point: The war against COVID-19 is, if anything, going to be a series of battles fought over an extended period. The response, too, has to be dynamic. The number of coronavirus cases will rise in the coming days, but so long as they are localised and the gradient of the overall curve, cases or deaths, doesn’t get steeper, all efforts must be made to ensure factories start humming — with strict precautions, of course.
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