The guidelines for Lockdown 4, announced by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on Sunday, continue a trend that began about two weeks ago. The ministry had allowed a range of economic activities in the non-COVID 19 hotspots during Lockdown 3. It has relaxed many more restrictions during the latest phase of the lockdown. Significantly, the guidelines accede to a major demand made by the states during Lockdown 3 — they have been given considerable flexibility in setting the boundaries of the infection zones. Such devolution of decision making is welcome. The states will now have to take care that they open up in a manner that does not aggravate the pandemic, while also addressing economic and humanitarian imperatives.
The doubling rate of the coronavirus infection has improved to 13.6 per cent in the last three days, after a tough 15 days when it hovered around 11.5 per cent. The mortality and recovery figures of COVID-19 patients have also shown positive trends, according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. However, these developments should not make state health authorities lose sight of the challenges they will face in the coming weeks. For example, according to a report in this newspaper, about two-thirds of the Shramik Special trains that ferry migrants back to their homes originate in COVID-19 hotspots. State authorities will have to make arrangements to test and, if need be, isolate the returning migrants in a dignified manner. The resumption of inter-state buses could make their task of managing the pandemic tougher. At the same time, improvements in transport could ease the desperation of the working class — that has borne a disproportionate burden of the country’s battle against the coronavirus — and check the already large toll on India’s roads and highways. That is why state governments need to be open-minded in exercising their transport-related powers during Lockdown 4.
State governments had alleged that the earlier criteria of designating entire districts as infection zones circumscribed their capacity to kickstart economic activities. The new guidelines allow them to designate “appropriate administrative units” — districts, municipal corporations, sub-divisions or wards — as containment zones. This would require constant conversation between state governments and local bodies. Such interactions are not always cordial even during normal times, especially when the party holding office at the state is different from the one running the local body. But the imperatives of combating the pandemic will require regular interactions between all levels of the government. Epidemiologists now say that the virus is here to stay. This means hotspots can change, the infection can recede from some areas and surge in other regions. The new guidelines allow the states to deal with such eventualities. Their micro-management of the battle against COVID-19 will be watched.