By Dr. S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
On the eve of opening several public places like malls, restaurants and places of worship on this 8 June, COVID-19 cases in India surged to a new high of nearly 11,000 taking the total past 2.5 lakh. New cases were reported from 32 and deaths from 18 States/UTs. Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal reported their highest single-day addition. The nation is facing a difficult situation while going forward with the decision of relaxing the lockdown.
India has undergone four periods of lockdown for about 70 days and running presently the 5th period when gradual loosening of restrictions is taking place. Varied criticisms are circulating regarding the benefits of lockdown – some welcoming it as the right decision at the right time and others condemning it as a wrong decision at the stage of commencement as well as introduction of relaxations. Between them are people who approve but do not follow all the lockdown guidelines.
Foremost among the critics is naturally the Opposition Congress Party as the country is now settled for viewing everything from a political party perspective. Its Former President, Rahul Gandhi, is firmly of the opinion that it is a “failed lockdown” that has produced devastating consequences on the poor. He elaborates that when lockdown was first clamped, there were few cases, and it is now relaxed when cases have surged. Comparison of India with Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK with graphs shows a contrasting picture of surging cases in India at present and declining trend in European countries.
Going by number and spread, the observation may appeal to laymen, but there are scientific methods of estimating pandemic escalation and its virulence. Further, imposing and lifting lockdown is also a matter that has several non-medical backgrounds which must be taken into account by any government. We have to ensure that decision on the matter is taken after extensive consultations with experts from various fields and not imposed just as a policy decision of political power holders. Whatever may be said of the success and failure of lockdown, governments at the Centre and States cannot be accused of taking any solo decision.
The logic of lockdown, its degree and details are rather complicated and open to many doubts and queries. Shut down cannot be claimed as the remedy for the disease. It is resorted mainly due to people’s inability to maintain social distance as well as to avoid close physical proximity normal in many of our activities. Its social and economic costs are tremendous, but still it is adopted as one of the universally accepted strategies in the present pandemic attack. A recent study has concluded that lockdowns have helped to avert three million deaths in Europe. Until we find a vaccine to the disease, we have to apply multiple methods of reducing the number of people infected.
We are thus cornered to find ways of effective observance of the lockdown to make it effective so as to reduce its period. Fine for violations are common in many European countries. Many States in India are also collecting huge fine amounts for non-observance of lockdown guidelines.
COVID-19 is a challenge to governments all over the world, the like of which hasn’t been experienced. World War II was the closest historical experience that threatened the future of a large number of countries and brought changes in the daily routine of common people. But the enemy was known at the time unlike the invisible and all pervading hidden enemy in the form of a virus that can multiply very fast.
Lockdown extensions have given time to expand testing, improve health infrastructure, and identify hotspots and reasons for their emergence besides directly reducing opportunities for contacts which promote the contagion. However, there are several blockages in implementing lockdown fully which act as barriers to obtain full results.
Lockdown failure has double implications – one that it is not an effective method of containing the virus, and secondly, that it has not been implemented as intended and required. Failure of lockdown as a method of fighting the pandemic is different from failure in putting lockdown policy into practice. In the latter come all kinds of national and regional situations and rivalries and resistance by people affected for non-medical reasons.
Basically, it is difficult to impose lockdown with an iron hand in a free country. People’s voluntary cooperation is indispensable. In a country where even traffic regulations like halting at signals, following one-way traffic rules, wearing helmets, etc, are breached openly, soft approach in enforcing lockdown rules particularly pertaining to personal behaviour may not work. On the other hand, closure of shops, institutions, and places of worship and entertainment, etc., has taken place as violations are noticeable and punishable. The result is half-hearted lockdown inevitably giving partial results.
The intensity and spread of the epidemic varies from place to place. Collecting data state-wise, district-wise, zone-wise and ward-wise is done for better medical care and attention and for better administrative handling of the problems. Presently, in many hotspots, street-wise data are gathered. It helps to identify areas requiring strict social distancing and surveillance meaning strict lockdown norms, and also to determine areas deserving relaxations in restrictions. When Lockdown 4 was ending, it was found that 70% of cases were emerging from 11 municipal areas in seven States. More autonomy is given to State governments in implementing the guidelines without diluting core regulations.
India has faced some unforeseen problems like the panic exodus of unorganised workers from their place of work to their original residence due to lockdown causing loss of employment. They are cases of breakdown of social distancing norms caused under lockdown pressures! The fallacious argument that loss of livelihood is as bad as an epidemic disease commonly put forth by anti-lockdown lobby is fit to be ignored. Livelihood may be restored, but not life. It is simple.
However, organised protests and pre-planned social gatherings have no excuse and they have taken place as usual in many places unmindful of the guidelines of lockdown. They serve to nullify the effect of lockdown and help the critics question the efficacy of lockdown as a strategy for containing the disease. The debate has to centre on the ability of the people to unite for a cause, follow a code of discipline, and forget petty politics for some time.
Infectious diseases are generally considered as diseases of the poor and COVID-19 is no exception. Both risk factors and healthcare facilities are unevenly distributed in our society. Impact of lockdown on individual lives also differs. Norms regarding social distancing, personal hygiene, etc., are beyond the affordability of the poor and even bulk of the middle classes.
The success or failure of lockdown in India is carried on with reference to number of fresh cases and deaths. Since lockdown is limited to closure of public places and institutions and social distancing norms and rules of cleanliness and hygiene are blatantly ignored, it is futile to discuss the success or failure of lockdown in India. What seems certain is that lockdown helps to reduce the number affected.—INFA