Locking the Country Down Beyond May 31: Chalking Out an Exit Strategy

Ramanath Jha

The end of Lockdown 4.0 in India is around the corner. As the lockdown approaches its end, the thorniest question facing the decisionmakers in the nation is what to do next. News reports suggest that Government of India (GoI) has begun consultations with Chief Ministers to obtain feedback on what they think. This is a little worrying. One would expect that an exit strategy for Lockdown 4.0 would have been worked out in advance, through as wide a national consultation as possible.

Additionally, a series of lockdowns should have generated enough data and information that would enable GoI to make an informed decision. It is more likely that GoI has already worked out a strategy and is consulting to see whether its own strategy has sufficient purchase. It is also a little galling that public declaration of decisions regarding lockdowns have been released towards the very end of a lockdown. It would have been much more democratic and helpful to the country’s populace if they had sufficient knowledge in advance to lay out their own future plan of action.

Past trends indicate that the political system in states is highly chary of opening up. Clearly, if their strategy is found wanting and overwhelms health infrastructure in states, it would pose a serious setback in the public mind regarding their competence. If the approach results in an abnormally high number of deaths, it would pose a grave setback to their political sustainability. At the same time, it is true that ‘lockdown fatigue’ has set in and people are getting increasingly restless about being boxed in. People want to live their life; they do not want to live death through inactivity. No further evidence of this is required than the one provided by migrant labourers in the country. Quite clearly, very long lockdowns cannot be an option.

Governments have had almost 70 days to service their objectives behind lockdowns. The first objective has been reasonably successful. The spread of the virus has been slowed down. While India has crossed the 165,000 mark (as of 29 May) of COVID-19 cases and is clocking around 6,000 cases per day, it is very clear that without lockdowns these numbers would have been exponentially high. The most important statistics for global comparison are total cases and total deaths per million population. These figures for India, standing at 120 cases and 3 deaths per million population respectively, have been — internationally — among the lowest till date. India’s total tally of deaths is remarkably low at 4,711 (as of 29 May). To put this into perspective, in 2019, about 25,000 people died in India in just two months on account of road accidents.

Progress in regard to the second objective – to ramp up testing and health care infrastructure – has also been positive. From negligible testing to begin with, India is now testing many more than 100,000 per day and is set to ramp up to 200,000 tests. Despite poor investment in health infrastructure for decades, the COVID-19 infrastructure effort has been laudable. It is estimated that India has approximately 1.9 million hospital beds, 95,000 ICU beds and 48,000 ventilators. GoI has committed itself to increase this further, if required. However, if the country were to see a sudden surge of cases, there is no doubt that the health-care system (infrastructure and manpower) would be heavily overloaded and overwhelmed.

The third objective – public practice of washing, masking and social distancing – has made great progress. A majority of citizens across the country have observed enormous restraint — even during religious festivals. Every nation will find delinquents. They should be ignored unless they unduly damage society. The excessive highlighting of such instances should not take away from the general discipline shown by a massive population, despite the severity of lockdowns at a huge personal pain.

Other pieces of information have emanated from the data collected during lockdowns and from global trends. One is that India’s COVID-19 cases are overwhelmingly located in its twenty largest cities. This means that the pandemic has a metropolitan dimension, where populations are large and densities are high. The second is that the virus is generally less virulent against the young and the fit, and is prone to attack the old and the unfit (those with co-morbidities). Hence, it is the latter that need special protection and care; the former can fight it out, even if infected. The third is that congregation of large numbers of people for any activity and event — that may cause mass infection — is inadvisable.

The positives of the lockdown narrated above should not conceal its enormous negatives. The economy has been battered, livelihoods in millions have been lost. It has been excessively cruel to the poor, the old and the disabled. Non-covid patients have been starved of treatment, there has been a rise in domestic abuse and women and children have suffered enormously. It is difficult to fathom the million ways in which individual families have had to face this imposed calamity. In view of the facts cited above, a case for a hard lockdown does not remain. While the first two lockdowns (24 March to 3 May 2020) could be labelled as lockdowns for national preparedness, Lockdown 3.0 (up to 17 May 2020) was excessive and Lockdown 4.0 (up to 31 May) suffocating. Any more ‘hard lockdowns’ would be tragic.

One of the drawbacks of a lockdown is that it does not allow a sudden and full release. This runs the danger of losing the gains of the lockdowns. The virus that had been slowed will run amok. Since our health infrastructure will crack under the enormous pressure of a big surge and lead to intolerable number of deaths, this is not an advisable course of action.

A softer form of customised regulation that draws lessons from the data above would be the saner course of action. Some restrictive prescriptions could be listed. The old (above 65) and the co-morbid should be advised to stay at home and practice utmost care. All mass congregations beyond fifty people should continue to be prohibited in order to slow down the virus. All such activities that can be performed from home should be incentivised. Organisations should explore ways that would enable them to shift to that style of functioning as far as possible.

Apart from these restrictions, the nation should allow the rest to carry on with their daily lives and activities. All citizens should be advised to wash, mask and socially distance, including at home in the case of the old. Home quarantine for the infected, wherever possible, should be encouraged. They should only be shifted to public/private health care facilities in cases where patients are serious. A massive and continuous online training programme should be launched on in-house health care and online medical advice as far as possible. Governments should seek and encourage the assistance of every social organisation that can provide assistance where governmental effort is falling short.

A separate metropolitan strategy for COVID-19 ought to be worked out. Concerted attention of the virus on metropolitan towns must be met by an equally intensive response by governments. This would comprise the concentration of manpower, materials, equipment, money and detailed and nuanced strategy. The idea here would be to slow down the virus so that health care can be managed.

The police machinery should concentrate on major defaults and violations, rather than micro-manage social behaviour. Travels that one can do without should be avoided, but unnecessary regulation of travel should be done away. This should be left to the common sense of the people and the innate human urge to keep out of danger and survive. The civil service should devote time on assisting the restart of the economy and supplement economic activities, so that the country and its institutions retain the strength to propel the nation forward. And, let us hope that the genius of science bails the world out of the pandemic through vaccine and drugs.

Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. The views expressed in the article are the author's

This article was first published on ORF.