[Delhi under lock down]
The 3-week country lock down Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced will have run its course by April 15. He is having a teleconference today with the chief ministers of all the states to decide on follow-up measures. The governments of Punjab and Odisha have already jumped the gun. Influenced by the experience of other countries and driven by a sense of abundant caution, Amarinder Singh and Naveen Patnaik have decreed that their states will continue to be locked down until the month end. This is a reasonable first step that the PM too will, in all likelihood, announce whenever next he addresses the nation. Especially because an ICMR study has concluded that India would have had some 8.2 lakh COVID-19 positive cases by April 15 had it not been for the nationwide lockdown. (Curiously, per a news report, the Health Ministry denies there is any such study!)
India is still in the early stage of the pandemic in most part because of the lack of diagnostic testing on an adequately large scale. Hence, a representative sample is not available with the government to build a contagion spread model on, to draw an India-specific COVID curve with, and otherwise to alight on a set of preventive actions to flatten it. India’s response to-date has been typically hybrid, taking a little from here, a bit from there, which is fine. But what are these other models?
South Korea has been the most successful and now touts the manner in which it has dealt with the COVID-19 crisis as its principal means of soft power. It mapped and tracked the movement of the disease through its human carriers, was absolutely transparent about its methods, persuaded its people to observe strict norms of personal and public conduct, activated wide-area surveillance, and speedily tested a very large number of people. What aspect of the South Korean model is beyond India’s ken? Why, the discipline of the people, of course! Unless there are police vans roaming around enforcing the curfew, as is the case in Delhi, warning people to stay indoors, or else, the success the country has so far had would be missing. But it also means a somewhat oppressive milieu and, willy-nilly, suspension of individual freedoms. This last is precisely what’s held against the Chinese model.
The authoritarian system in China simply closed off the danger areas, lopped off what little freedom the people enjoyed, and imposed a compulsory screening, identification, isolation and treatment system nation-wide. Even if the Indian government has no democratic qualms, it cannot emulate this model because it simply does not have the policing wherewithal or the harshly punitive but disciplined system of collective order, and zero capability of the kind China has routinized to track through a mobile apps the movement of almost all of its people remotely exposed to the virus. The British model first tried out and then quickly discarded was based on the Darwinian principle of letting the most susceptible and vulnerable, particularly the aged, to succumb to the virus and die in order to conserve resources to keep alive a younger demographic. This is grisly and for obvious reasons a non-starter. In Israel, borders have been closed to people from any country identified as with the virus. A variation of this is already current in India except, even after the lock down announcement, airlines flying in from all over disgorged passengers with a sieve-like testing regime manned by the predictably inefficient health staffers at airports. So the afflicted as well as the asymptomatic carriers were allowed to fan out all over the country to ensure the disease reached pandemic proportions.
What next? Because Modi seems to take his cues from America, this may be of interest. The reputable periodical ‘The Scientific American’ reported about a recent American Enterprise Institute (a think tank) study that offers a four-phase “road map to reopening.” The first phase involves, it says, “slowing the spread of new infections with physical distancing measures, such as closing schools and having people work from home. In the second step, individual states can reopen when they have the capacity to identify, test and isolate most people with COVID-19 and their close contacts—but some distancing will still be required. In the third, remaining restrictions can be lifted when an effective therapy or vaccine becomes available or when data show widespread immunity. The final stage, after the current pandemic is over, will be to invest heavily in research and health care to prepare for the next one.”
Using the metrics in this report, India is clearly in the first phase. It is also perfectly plain that the non-BJP-ruled states are marching to the beat of their own drum and, as in the case of Punjab and Odisha extending the lockdown, are ahead of the Central government. Apparently, what we are witnessing here is what’s happening in the US where the state and local governments are doing what they think is best for the people under their jurisdictions. Except in Washington a completely impulsive and wayward President, Donald Trump, is needlessly mucking up things with his ill-informed takes on the disease and its spread. Here a more deliberate Modi is advancing by small steps.
Considering that the state governments are closer to the ground reality which may differ hugely from state to state in this vast country, may be what Modi should do is leave it to the political dispensations in the states to decide how they want exactly to proceed in terms of timelines and programmatic details as long as generally a standardized protocol (that all agree on) for phased elimination of COVID-19 is followed.