A little more than seven weeks ago, India imposed the world’s largest and most stringent lockdown. The lockdown — sudden, all-pervasive, coercive, destructive — was imposed unilaterally by the prime minister but was facilitated by a remarkable political consensus. This consensus was driven by three things: The alarming experience in developed countries with tens of thousands dead and an overwhelmed public health infrastructure struggling to keep up; doomsday scenarios being painted for India (mortality estimates of “a couple of million” were casually thrown about); and governments across the world imposing some form of “lockdown”. While there were few dissenting voices from the medical community, the point of dissent was the practicability of the lockdown — most argued that India needs herd immunity — without disputing the severity of the virus or its projected fatalities. Consequently, all public figures — politicians, media, civil society — either backed the lockdown or remained silent.
The middle-class, led by RWAs, rapidly mobilised itself into enforcers, going into self-righteous spasms over any seeming aberration from the lockdown, even solitary morning walks. Lives circumscribed by routine and boredom were suddenly imbued with danger. While receiving a home delivery package, #StaySafe became the sign-off of choice. In this climate of fear, procedural concerns of democracy — consultation, transparency, federalism —were given short shrift. Dissent, predicated on the economic impact of the lockdown, was easily demolished with the counter, “jaan hai to jahaan hai”. The public discourse was thus perforce confined to the aftermath of lockdown — the plight of the stranded migrant workers, the need for social security for the poor and marginalised — and not the basis and correctness of the lockdown itself. The coercive nature of the lockdown, without statutory backing and enforced by the police under Section 144 orders, was glossed over as well because of the overarching consensus backing the lockdown.
Yet, seven weeks and three extensions later, some things have become clear. First, a lockdown in India cannot enforce physical distancing. This should have been obvious from the beginning, considering that roughly one out of every six urban Indians lives in a slum and many more live in cramped accommodations, not conducive to physical distancing. This has been borne out by the steadily rising numbers of the people infected: India had about 300 cases of COVID-19 patients at the beginning of the lockdown on March 22 and after seven weeks of the unmitigated lockdown, the numbers stood at over 70,000 cases. The actual number of infected is likely to be several orders of magnitude higher since roughly 80 per cent of cases are asymptomatic and headline infected numbers are a function of testing, which is very low in India.
Second, and more importantly, for reasons which remain unclear at this point, the impact of COVID-19 in South Asia, including in India, is less severe than it is in countries like Italy, the UK and the US. It is now evident that for most people, except the elderly and those with some pre-existing diseases, COVID-19 is either asymptomatic or akin to the seasonal flu. The medical consensus too has shifted: Despite rising infection numbers and evidence of community transmission, no alarmist fatality projections are being made for India anymore.
It’s time for our politics and public policy to similarly dial down. Till the time the impact of the COVID-19 virus seemed exponential and uncontainable, the lockdown could perhaps have been temporarily justified to help the state devise its strategy and ramp up public health infrastructure. Even then, seven weeks and three extensions later, with rising infection numbers and an eviscerated economy, the lockdown is losing democratic legitimacy. The premise for the lockdown is virulence, not the infectiousness of the virus. We must continue to take all reasonable precautions but now that we know the projected fatalities to be highly exaggerated, the coercive and destructive lockdown must end.
A key public policy principle is proportionality, meaning the balance between costs and benefits, as well as the means and ends. The benefit is no longer saving lakhs of lives. But the costs to our economy and democracy are enormous. Growth rate estimates for the Indian economy in FY 2021 range from negative rates to about 2 per cent, the lowest rate in three decades. Over 14 crore people have lost employment; 45 per cent of households have reported a drop in income. For large sections of our population, life and livelihood are inextricably linked and the possibility of starvation deaths outpacing COVID deaths is real. Democracy is premised on giving equal value to every life but the lockdown explicitly privileges one set of lives over others. Not only do large sections of our population not have the resources to incorporate physical distancing in their lives, but the negative economic impact is also distributed in highly unequal ways for a policy decision that purportedly benefits all. Informal labour and MSMEs have been thrown to the winds while the economic consequences for the salaried and pensioned middle-class is negligible in comparison. The ongoing distinction between essential and non-essential goods and services too is irrational and discriminatory when it comes to the question of livelihoods.
Last, but not least, it is important to moderate the climate of fear and irrationality, which has gripped our country. The fear is being used by the government to mandate the installation of a proprietary contact-tracing app on people’s phones, leading to concerns of mass surveillance. The political sanction for overblown fears has empowered local groups, especially RWAs, to restrict other people’s freedoms, notably the right to work for domestic workers, dhobis etc. Finally, sustaining democracy requires opening up space for “politics” in decision-making, the asking of questions, the demand for transparency and accountability. And this is just not possible when the country is in the grip of mass hysteria. The climate of fear and the lockdown are in a self-perpetuating cycle. Both need to end now.
The writer is All India Congress Committee Joint Secretary in charge of the student wing. Views expressed are personal