A gamble, a trade-off
Following much-publicised fumbles with the world’s largest and most severe lockdown, the Indian Government must be cautious and balanced in its approach to unlocking the lockdown
Ever since the sudden and unprepared lockdown was clamped down upon India, the country has witnessed issues unprecedented in our history — agony, anguish, distress, mental health problems, suicides, deaths, not resulting from the Coronavirus, but due to the sufferings resulting from the lockdown.
The sudden lockdown had come as a great setback, for a people already suffering a great deal from unemployment, penury, prejudice, unrest and economic slowdown. When the Prime Minister declared the lockdown a necessary and important step to fight the menace of Coronavirus and claimed that the battle against the virus will be won in 21 days, the country took the pain caused by the Lockdown as a necessary sacrifice towards a greater good and complied with the unbearably severe and harsh lockdown rules and conditions.
Life came to a complete standstill as a result of Lockdown but the country was hopeful — their hope fuelled by the confident and grandiose promises made by our beloved Prime Minister. Time continued ticking but the boxes in the 'Fight Corona' checklist were not ticked. The lockdown was foremost considered a pause button to prepare our already stressed and inadequate healthcare system and to scale up the facilities and the equipment. However, at the end of Lockdown 1.0, as reports surfaced that the Government was facing a severe shortage of protective gear (PPE) and other equipment needed to protect healthcare workers, such equipment was exported to Slovenia creating a huge flutter. This, after the fact that the healthcare workers were being hailed as Corona Warriors in whose honour the Prime Minister goaded the nation to clang thalis and clap from their balconies.
Even before Lockdown 1.0 came to an end, it was extended with greater firmness and in some cases brutality. The brutality that became the hallmark of police action across the country. Videos of the hapless people violating lockdown and ignoring social distancing went viral. Not much action was taken against the police atrocities though such violators were booked. The PM's 'thali' and 'taali' call resulted in overzealous followers turning it into a public event, disparaging social distancing norms, and later the countrymen were further prodded to light candles to scare away the Coronavirus. The country obliged in unison. But what horrified the nation beyond any precedent were the tragic graphic videos and photos of the travails of these poor migrants, walking barefoot, women and children in tow, which jolted the conscience of a nation already reeling under the tyranny of an unplanned lockdown. While the people were deeply moved by the plight of these migrants the Government was not. Experts and opposition suggested to the Government to arrange transport and allow these poor migrants to go to their native places but the government paid no heed and instead used brute force and might of the police to stall their march, putting them into camps inefficiently managed, resulting in getting them infected.
When the criticism grew and the issue became too hot to handle, the Government arranged trains and buses but even that resulted in comical situations when trains drifted the assigned path and lost their way for no apparent reason. It is now extensively argued that, had the Government allowed 3-4 days for the migrants to travel to their native destination by deferring the lockdown, the spread of the virus could have been greatly contained as in the initial days of the lockdown the spread of the infection was far less severe.
Another aspect which is frequently debated now is the issue of the steps to recover the economy from its pyre. Experts, of the level and repute of Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan, the former RBI Governor, amongst others, had recommended that in the aftermath of the lockdown, the Government must infuse money in cash transfers to the poor and jobless to pump up demand thereby triggering manufacturing activity resulting in a possible and quick economic revival. There was unanimity amongst the top economists and experts on the aspect. The Government initially dithered on the issue and announced an economic package to the tune of Rs 1.76 lakh crore being around one per cent of the GDP. When it failed to yield any positive result and failed to arrest the economic downfall, the Government sheepishly but feverishly announced a relief package to the tune of 20 lakh crores, almost 10 per cent of the GDP as was suggested by the experts in the beginning. The announcement of the package by the Prime Minister in his typical style created quite a flutter with its huge figures, but when the details of the package were dramatically announced by the Finance Minister N Sitharaman in 5 tranches over a period of 5 days, the sentiment vanished, and the bluff was called.
Economists and experts were quick to point out the fallacies of the package announced, highlighting the jugglery that went into the making of the relief package. This flip flop on the part of the Government has resulted in the mess that we see today across the length and breadth of the country. Despite the mindless extension of lockdown to stage 4, things did not show any improvement.
The Government made eloquent claims that the lockdown has resulted in the arrest of the spread of Coronavirus as the total Corona cases in the country were far less compared to other nations afflicted with the deadly virus. Experts, however, pointed out the holes in this claim by pointing to the abysmally low rate of testing in the country. Initially, the testing rate was minuscule which later increased to some extent. As the days, weeks and months passed by under the lockdown, during the period from last week of May to the first week of June 2020, the cases doubled in India which completely bogged down the Government. Clearly the Government was clueless about handling the pandemic and the lockdown. The Government found itself in a 'Catch-22' situation from the outset. On one hand, the lockdown had completely and unmistakably destroyed the economy, making crores of poor people deprived of jobs, money, food, healthcare, proving the government to be inadequate.
The Government completely surrendering to the dilemma, though putting up a brave face under the garb of a graded exit from lockdown, announced Unlock 1.0, making huge concessions and allowing hordes of activities, so far prohibited under lockdown. Since the Government, feeling the heat from the traders had already allowed markets to open (wine shops were the first to open) there was no way religious places could be kept closed anymore. There were fears of a backlash from the devotees who form a major chunk of the electorate in the country. So, the religious places of all hue and colour have been thrown open under a facade of guidelines. As lockdown rules are relaxed immensely and the economic activity is recommenced, life apparently seems to be getting back to normal and the Government seems to have taken a sigh of great relief. But the real test lies ahead now.
The lockdown for all its good intentions and claims of containing the spread has been universally criticised for maiming and slaying of the economy as a result of which the nation faces an enormous catastrophe and the fall out is going to have a great impact on the future of the nation and its mammoth population. Experts have predicted that the peak of the virus in India is yet to happen. Unlocking of the restrictions at a time when the doubling up time for the cases in the country has reduced to 13 days is an ominous portent. It is a huge gamble that the Government has taken and the result, though difficult to certain, is vaguely apparent. The opening of the marketplace and the religious places will result in the consumers and the devout congregating in large numbers throwing caution to the wind which may further fuel the spread of the virus like wildfire.
The experience of the last two and a half months has laid bare the fact that the Government has faltered in its approach and the tendency to project one man as the guarantor of the successful handling of the fight with the virus, to the exclusion and isolation of all the stakeholders. This has resulted in preventing the coming together of minds to unitedly face huge challenges thrown in by the unprecedented pandemic and the lockdowns. The Central Government has ignored the suggestions by state governments and opposition leaders, resulting in uncoordinated setups and mechanism, at times, at loggerheads with its avowed purpose. One notable example is that of the colour coding of COVID affected areas by the Centre. Whereas the states and local administration were best suited to do the job, being in the thick of things, the insistence of the Centre in deciding the issue resulted in weak administration and confusion in identifying the problem. True to its approach during the entire lockdown, the Centre did a flip flop here too and allowed the states to categorise the areas with colour coding by the state administration, albeit at the fag end.
This caving-in after a lot of pressure did great damage in controlling and managing a lockdown and pandemic of the magnitude of the present crisis. The Government is not publicly accepting that it's handling of the migrant exodus issue has been truly incompetent and has resulted in untold and unbearable misery to the poor masses resulting in several deaths. The migrant crisis is a historical blot on the face of the nation the scars of which won't naturally heal with time. Looking back at all this and taking into consideration the experiences of the recent past in the aftermath of lockdown, the government is urgently required to take into its purview the staring-in-your-face catastrophe, economic disruption, joblessness, poverty, anarchy, chaos, unprecedented deterioration in law and order across the country, and properly strategise a plan to deal with the pandemic on a realistic basis and take concrete steps to recover the economy in good time.
India's COVID growth rate is the fastest of the worst 5 countries. Testing, testing and more testing followed by isolation, contact tracing and quarantine is the only way to combat this pandemic. We are amongst the lowest testing countries — 3.4 per thousand people. The Government would be well advised to take experts' and oppositions' views still in the little time left and heed them to save the day for a country of 1.3 billion people which the Prime Minister is so fond of saying . A stitch in time would save nine.