It has been 112 days since the lockdown to curtail the spread of novel Coronavirus was announced in the country. All the religious, social, cultural and economic activities were put on hold when our Prime Minister declared a nationwide lockdown at 20:00 hours on March 24, 2020. The country had 618 active COVID-19 cases on March 24. As of July 14, the tally of the cases stands at 9,06,375 of which 5,94,810 have recovered, while the death toll stands at 23,721. Meanwhile, the country is in the sixth phase of the lockdown, which is called Unlock 2.0, but the rise in cases isn’t stopping.
On March 24, the Prime Minister urged the people of the country not to move out of their houses and to not trespass the ‘lakshmanrekha’ of their homes in order to break the chain of corona virus transmission. The Prime Minster equated the first 21 days of the lockdown with the 18 Day War of Hindu epic ‘Mahabharata’. His address was full of vigor and strength and gave immense hope to the people, but has the decision reached its objective? With a constant rise in cases since the first reported case on January 30, the decrease in the spread of infection seems like a distant goal. Our government claimed that the country is lucky because the virus here reached late, and hence there was an opportunity for us to learn from the other countries and impose a timely lockdown. But what went wrong during the lockdown that the surge in cases is still not stopping and has increased exponentially? Was the government ignorant about the virus or inefficient in handling the crisis? India, now, is the third worst affected country in the world behind USA and Brazil surpassing all the severely affected countries like Russia, Italy, Spain and China.
COVID-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020. It was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, following the spread of it in 114 countries with 118,000 cases and 4291 deaths. In India, the first case of COVID-19 was detected on January 30 in Kerala’s Thrissur district in a student who had returned from China’s Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic. Since then the number of cases has risen continuously taking the toll from 1 on January 30 to 618 cases on March 24. Although mandatory international passenger screening was introduced on March 4 cases continued to rise after that, since a large chunk of people from outside the country had already entered unchecked before the date. Several states started imposing restrictions on trade, socio-cultural activities and closing educational institutions. It was on March 24 that a nationwide lockdown was imposed restricting both international and domestic air traffic, social, cultural and all kinds of economic activities, except essential services. The government lauded that it was pro-active in imposing timely lockdown learning from countries like Italy and Spain who were late in imposing complete lockdown, leading to a catastrophic situation in their countries. The government also claimed from an unknown study that if there was no lockdown the number of cases would have reached 8.2 lakh by April 15. But today the situation is explicit which no one can deny. The main objective of the lockdown has failed with constant rise in number of cases and fatalities. Ease in lockdown has made the situation from bad to worse. There are several reasons that can be attributed for the lockdown not reaching its consequences.
Ignoring Scientific Inputs
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in the first week of April recommended the government that a house to house surveillance mechanism should be set-up in each district. People showing the COVID-19 symptoms should be immediately detected and quarantined without awaiting test results. If after 14 days of quarantine such individuals show signs of recovery and cases decline by 40% in a district, and if the healthcare infrastructure is ready to tackle further increase only then the lockdown should be lifted.
For the first six weeks and two extensions later, there was neither house to house surveillance system nor the follow up of decision-making tree of ICMR. Instead the central government decided on parameters to classify the districts into green, orange and red zones to ease the restrictions, the details of which were not revealed to the state governments. As a result, there were 67000 cases by May 11. Imposing a lockdown with a four-hour notice with an unscientific temperament held the lives of millions of migrant laborers at ransom.
Lagging Health Infrastructure
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO in his press conference said that, “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test”. Despite knowing that COVID-19 is a public health emergency and a pandemic, the ICMR procured very limited number of testing kits. ICMR’s press release indicates that by March 6 only 3404 individuals were tested. By March 20 it increased to 13,486 tests (10.5 per million people). Till May 19, India conducted around 1700 tests per million while the USA, Italy, UK and Russia stood at 36,961, 51,347, 29,412 and 50,381 tests per million respectively. Adding up to the worry was the charge of Rs.4500 levied by private labs per test unaffordable for the underprivileged. There were news from around the country about the shortage of PPE kits and protective gears as well. Dr. Salil Panakadan, a regional adviser for UNAIDS said, “The biggest issue with lockdown is that many national responses think of it as a main or only measure of control-it is not, it is a component of an overall comprehensive strategy, which must use the time to prepare health systems, populations and supply chains”. According to Dr. Panakadan, there is no single formula to resolve the crisis, a lockdown that focused on public health, and not law and order, is more likely to take a country to the shore. In addition to this, the government had ignored the advice of several epidemiologists. The graph below shows India’s tests per thousand people compared with other countries as of June 17, 2020.
Jawhar Sircar, a former Secretary to the government said in an interview with The Wire , “Mr. Modi does not believe in consultations. His government is run by a few yes-men. In times of such crises, you need discussion, first within the cabinet, then with bureaucrats, and you need contrary opinions”. These comments by Jawhar Sircar explains that the country was put on a sudden hold without even consulting state governments and without assessing the ground level situation. Migrants returning to their homes were even sprayed with disinfectants in Delhi and UP. Janta Curfew (People’s curfew) was imposed by giving a prior notice of four days and just a four-hour notice for a countrywide lockdown of 21 days, it is no surprise that the Prime Minister is habitual of giving such surprises. The Government didn’t anticipate the exodus and didn’t take into account the plight of migrant workers. The Prime Minister has not given a single press conference during the pandemic, seems like he just believes in delivering a monologue.
According to Economist Saikat Sinha Roy, only if the lockdown was delayed by about fifteen days, it would have allowed the firms to complete their orders placed to them during the last quarter of the year leading to realization of most of the transaction in 2019-20. The sudden shutdown of the economy rendered million jobless. A survey conducted by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) tells that 90% of the workers received no salaries from their employers and 96% received no rations from the government. A glorious ‘20 lakh crore package’ was announced by the PM without telling how it would be financed. According to some economists, about 16.50 lakh crore have been vanished from the economy, thus the government would find difficulty in reaching its revenue targets.
The government has disrespected their workers in times of need. The crony capitalism and hollow promises of government has broken the trust of the workers. Pity politics over the plight of migrants was heart wrenching. The Prime Minister requested the owners to not lay off their workers and pay them fully while the reality was totally opposite. With draining resources and activities at standstill how can the government expect the employers to pay their employees? It was an irony when the PM urged the people of India to be ‘Aatmnirbhar’ while they continued to sell non-strategic PSUs and inviting private sector investments in every sector promoting disinvestment. Is this self-reliance? Or the government is escaping from its responsibilities?
It is high time that the government realizes its shortcomings and emulate successful models of Kerala, Bengaluru and Bhilwara leading. The citizens should realize that the government is fighting a war on two fronts viz. COVID-19 and Chinese aggression. The government must ensure that only a transparent, scientific and democratic discourse should be established while involving citizens and experts in decision making to evade these tough times as soon as possible.
Aman Sharma is a student pursuing Public Administration from Jamia Millia Islamia.
edited by: Nuzhat Khan
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.