Wednesday , 12 August 2020
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Lockdowns easy but exit not so

By DM Deshpande

In lock down 2.0 India is facing stiff challenges. Among the bigger nations, Indian case is perhaps unique. It decided to lock down very early when the number of positive cases was less than six hundred. And later when the unwinding began, it had positive cases increasing and breaking record almost every single day.

At the time of writing, India is adding over 20K positive cases on a daily basis with no sign of respite in sight. In contrast, in western countries where lockdowns have been successful, they were imposed when the numbers were rising; and phased exit was undertaken when the numbers began to fall.

By all accounts, India had about the toughest and longest lockdown in the world. However, early and total lock down gave time to prepare for spread later and saved thousands of lives.

  Lockdowns are unconventional decisions. To draw an analogy, it is akin to huge monetary easing announced by the western nations in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008. Politically, they are easy to enter but difficult to exit, as several countries found to their dismay. Politically it is expedient to decide lock downs, but exiting them is fraught with grave risks.

To use a jargon, there is an asymmetry of pay-offs for the incumbent governments. If the lock downs goes well, there is an upside though not a big one. But the downside risks are simply very high in case it goes awry especially if more deaths occur. There is always an option to delay the exit so as to augment health infrastructure in anticipation of higher numbers. A reckless and relentless lock down exit in US states has resulted in both- numbers rising and mortality rate, too, going up.

The centre is keen on phased exit from lock downs; in contrast, states seem to be more inclined to continue, even reimpose lock downs. The Prime Minister has also reiterated that lock downs are not a solution. He has rightly emphasized wearing masks, maintaining social distances and sanitising measures to combat the spread of virus. Maharashtra, TamilNadu, West Bengal, Delhi and now Karnataka all want restrictions in place. As a result, metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkota and Bengaluru have remained in a limbo of various degrees. This has seriously dented efforts to revive, normalise economic activities in the country.

Though the Covid 19 numbers are rising fast, there is a silver lining. The global figure has crossed one crore mark and five lakh deaths. In India positive cases have exceeded 6 lakhs and over 18,000 deaths. Nearly 81 per cent Indians are below 50 years of age. It is increasingly becoming clear that a miniscule of those affected need hospitalization; in fact less than five per cent need intensive care and ventilators.

Recovery rate too is good and improving, heading towards the 60 per cent mark. India is therefore, well placed to take the virus spread all the way to the stage where herd immunity prevents further spread. In the meanwhile, it is the duty of the governments and the health care system to take care of the aged, children and persons most vulnerable with co-morbidities.

Governments also have the responsibility to dispel the fear of lack of hospital beds. Ramping up, using technology to locate a hospital/centre quickly and developing a new protocol to treat mild cases at homes will help in ushering the ‘new normal’.

The story of this pandemic is not only about the disease and death but also of disrupted production, trade and commerce. The entire world is opening up though it is known that the virus is going to spread. It may be months before countries like India would be able to ‘flatten the curve.’

Poor governance, inadequate health care infrastructure and other resources will make the containment task very difficult in India. There is no substitute for much higher testing, tracing and treating. Countries that have successfully flattened the curve like  Germany, Italy, Austria, New Zealand and even Myanmar all have achieved a positive testing ratio of one per cent, viz. for every 100 samples tested only one is found to be positive, revealed by a study at Oxford University.

  In India, despite ramped up testing, there is one confirmed case for every 12 cases tested. This means that due to lower testing, several positive cases may be going undetected and therefore leading to greater spread. This will only increase demand for

stricter lock downs.

Governments must see beyond lock downs now. There is evidence to show that they are not the solution to the problem of Covid 19. By shuffling and re-imposing restrictions, not only economic activity gets obstructed, it also creates uncertainties for all future planning and forecasting. This will negatively impact investments and reaching back pre-COVID production and distribution levels is rendered difficult.

Individuals, civil society members and all leaders owe a duty of creating proper awareness regarding the spread of the virus and the precautions that need to be taken. The Prime Minister has taken the lead. It is now for leaders at the state levels to stand firm and help revive the ‘halted economy.’     

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.

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