By Harihar Swarup


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement declaring “lock down” — or, in common man’s language, “curfew” — throughout the country to tackle the coronavirus menace, is a welcome step. But the uncalled for inconveniences caused to people has been overlooked by government. As a result, there has occurred complete breakdown of public services — the newspapers were not delivered in the morning for successive four days now; the maids, who do routine work, did not turn up; garbage piled in front of houses, in absence of sweeping staff. If this continues, diseases may break out, take the form of epidemic, and may cause more damage than coronavirus alone.


Medical shops were open but there were no delivery boys. A chemist said if supplies were not received, the medical shops have to be closed. Even hospital services were disrupted and major surgeries had to be postponed. The number of public grievances is unending and people have already started cursing the Prime Minister.


If the public services do not improve, people may rise in revolt. They say situation is turning out to be worse than the Emergency days. What the governments at the Centre and states can do immediately is to lift the blanket ban on persons engaged in essential services. Ban on transport system like buses and metros could be partially lifted. Restrictions on private transport like cars, auto rickshaws and two wheelers may be removed. People have to, after all, survive.


Nobody doubts that the coronavirus should be fought on war footing but day-to-day essential items must to be provided. Something has to be done for the daily wagers who survive on day-to-day earnings.


The real test for India on community transmission has just begun. And, once again, the Government of India responded to frontloading by tough measures. The extraordinary decisions of the last few days— from the national janata curfew to initiating lockdowns in several states—standout largely because no other big country affected by this virus took such a drastic step in anticipation of stage three, i.e., community transmission.


The heavy-handed pre-emptive approach was right there from the start, when India became among the first few countries to officially curtail travel to and from China. An upset Beijing officially protested through diplomatic channels, even pressuring New Delhi to review the situation. India later faced pressure from Seoul when it placed travel restrictions on South Korea.


India went ahead, despite the fact that Beijing was also to use its clout to bring considerable pressure on global institutions to not paint China as the villain. There is a strong view in New Delhi that WHO was rather delayed in declaring Covid-19 as a ‘pandemic’, which is why individual states like India went ahead with their own measures.


One option was to adopt South Korean model and go for large-scale Covid-19 testing of people with symptoms to identify affected members of the population. But unlike South Korea, there are severe limitations to India’s healthcare infrastructure, in terms of both quarantining and treatment of a large population.


In keeping with the realities, India seemingly dovetailed its pre-emptive strategy with an attempt to identify severe cases, which were in need of hospitalization. What this effectively meant is ‘no testing’ unless the symptoms persist, or worsen over a length of time. The logic appears to have been based on the data that the majority of affected people happen to recover by themselves. Mass social campaigns were put out with the central message that anyone with flu symptoms ought to go on self-quarantine. And if this situation deteriorated, they could go to designated facilities.


But how do you prevent a population unaware that they are infected from passing on the virus? That is now the actual unknown. What in India might have been achieved, with its preventive clampdown and selective testing approach, could be to, perhaps delay the onset of a larger spread. Yet, it now stands at the cusp of a bigger challenge.


The next phase is in the fight against the ‘unknown, unknowns’. And, again GOI has decided not to wait until India enters ‘stage-3’ community transmission to take its tough measures. So, we have a lockdown in place and a gradual expansion of testing and treatment sites.


Two elements stand out from a policy perspective. One, the desire to actively pre-empt – and not just prevent. Two, take a conscious call to as far as possible, not let Covid-19 overrun India’s comparatively modest health care capabilities that, as it is, struggles to meet other requirements. (IPA Service)

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