Can India afford another lockdown?

When India went into a lockdown in March last year, the infection tally was around 500 and 50 people had died due to the coronavirus disease. In the second wave, the infection tally has mounted to 13.71 million and the death toll is 171,205, making everyone ask if the country should go for a complete lockdown again.

As India is witnessing the second wave of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which has shown an alarming increase in transmissibility, the same questions that stared the country in the face in March 2020 are back to haunt it. Do we have enough ICU beds to tackle this health emergency? Do we have enough ventilators to save our people? Do we have enough doctors and paramedical staff to work in Covid-19 dedicated hospitals?

We thought we had conquered the coronavirus infections when the number of new cases fell under 20,000 and the new deaths were close to 100 in January-February this year. Even on March 1, India had 15,510 new confirmed cases and the 7-day average was 15,716; deaths were 106 and the 7-day average was 104. And then things began to get worse. The graph just kept rising higher and higher. According to the Covid-19 dashboard of the union health ministry, on April 1, the new cases were 72,330 and the deaths were 459. At the time of writing this report – April 14, the daily tally is 200,739 new cases and 1,038 deaths. The 7-day average of cases is 144,786, and of deaths, 829. These are all record numbers. As a matter of fact, India surpassed Brazil on April 12 to become the second worst-hit country from the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you get bogged down with numbers, let’s tell you simply that the situation is far worse than it was last year. We are again reading reports about shortage of beds in hospitals, shortage of essential drugs to fight the infection and even shortage of vaccines.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a stringent lockdown in the country for 21 days, starting the midnight of March 24, 2020, to curb the spread of the pandemic. “This virus has been spreading very fast across the world. It spreads like wildfire. Looking at the experience of these countries, and what the experts say, the only successful way to tackle the spread of the virus is social distancing,” PM Modi said while announcing the lockdown on March 23 last year.

All establishments – private, commercial, educational and government – were asked to remain shut. At the time of his address, PM Modi said: “Every state, every Union territory, every district, every village and every locality is being put under a lockdown. This is in effect a curfew, more stringent than the Janta Curfew.”

India’s nationwide lockdown was one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world as it limited the movement of the entire 1.38 billion people. Later, the lockdown triggered a massive exodus of migrants due to the shutdown of factories and the workplace. Millions of migrant workers walked or cycled hundreds of kilometres to go back to their native villages, triggering a countrywide outrage and criticism of the Centre.

But because the country believed in its Prime Minister – even for silly things such as banging plates or lighting diyas – it remained confined to its houses. March and April are examination times in India, and the dates for the board examinations of Class 10 and 12 neared, there were questions about where the exams should be held or not. Then, similar debates were held over whether the competitive examinations, specifically the Joint Entrance Examination for admissions to engineering colleges, and National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Examination for admissions to medical college, should be held or postponed. The Centre took a decision to hold all examinations following all SOPs – masks, hand sanitisers and social distance.

By the end of 2020, people lowered their guards and believed that we had conquered the virus. Many people had been infected and recovered, and some of us even got the false confidence that we had achieved herd immunity against the infection.

We were wrong.

In the second wave, the virus is more dangerous, inflecting more people and killing more. The symptoms are different; many people remain asymptomatic when the coronavirus has already started affecting their lungs.

And hence the question: Should there be another lockdown?

Many states, especially the 10 worst-affected ones, have announced night curfews. The fines for not following the Covid-19 guidelines have returned. But few dare to announce a lockdown. Chief ministers of some states, such as Rajasthan, have unequivocally said a lockdown was not possible because it will wreak havoc on the economy; others are cagey about it. The Centre, it seems, is too busy in West Bengal and Assam, where Assembly elections are under way.

As we see pictures of political rallies, in which thousands of people congregate at one place, we are bound to wonder if the virus spares people who are involved in electioneering. Ditto for thousands taking the holy dip in Ganga in Haridwar. If politicians and religious leaders can get away with flouting the Covid-19 guidelines, why should the commoners be fined for it, is the question that people ask in private conversations.

But more important than these are the questions about how the country prepared itself in one year of pandemic to tackle the second or any consequent waves. One of the reasons for announcing the nationwide lockdown was the time India needed to ramp up its healthcare infrastructure. But most states only got more ventilators and did not either increase beds in hospitals or create Covid-19 dedicated hospitals. The doctors and paramedical staff got worn out due to extended duty hours.

As a result, when the country is facing the second wave of infections – and a more virulent one – we are as ill-prepared for it as we were in the beginning of the pandemic last year. So the lockdown was a waste? What did we achieve by locking everyone inside their houses? People lost jobs, faced salary cuts and the unorganized sector workers found themselves in the quagmire of loss of livelihood. These, of course, are the negatives of the lockdown. What are the positives? That we have learnt to live with virtual meetings and Google Meet/ Zoom classrooms? Is that all that we aimed for?

India doesn’t seem to have any policy in place even more than one year after Covid-19 arrived. One day, we use HCQS for Covid-19 patients, the next day, we don’t. One day, we use Remdesivir injections, the next day someone says all patients don’t need it. One day, the CT value for declaring Covid-19 positive is 25, the next day, it is 35. There’s no universal treatment protocol.

For many months, everyone thought when vaccines arrive, everything will be taken care of. The vaccines arrived – India, in fact, has two vaccines – and India became the second country after the United States to inoculate the highest number of people. But now we hear experts say vaccines are no prevention for the disease; they will only make the infection less deadly. Even at these times, when India is reporting more than 150,000 cases every day, we have restricted vaccines to certain groups of people. Only people above 45 years can get it. Shouldn’t the Centre now make it universal? But then we hear stories of shortage of vaccines. So even on the vaccine front, we did no homework in one year.

This brings me to the final point – if we did not do anything in lockdown 1.0, what is the guarantee that we will do anything in the second lockdown? Another nationwide lockdown should not be allowed to ruin the economy further and reduce jobs even more. The government needs to seriously plan strategies, develop protocols and stick to it. Only then we can emerge out of this second wave.

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