Lockdown 1.0 to Unlock 1.0: Did it yield the desired results?

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India was under lockdown from 25th March to 8th June, but the number of infections are now witnessing a sharp increase every day. On an average, every day more than 22,000 new cases are added. Compared to India, the most affected countries in Europe like Spain, Italy, Germany & the UK. and the US were able to flatten the curve with a lockdown for a maximum period of two months. The current disturbing situation in India makes one to seek answers to the following pertinent questions:

Why India has not been able to flatten the curve of infections when the most affected countries in Europe & the US could achieve this goal even with a lockdown for lesser durations?

Was it a premature step on part India to unlock in the midst of increasing number of new cases?

Given the way unlock 1 & 2 is shaping on the ground, are we heading towards a much more serious problem?

Number of reasons are assigned to this failure to flatten the curve; why it went against all estimates by mathematicians and other experts. The most prominent reason is the failure of the government to undertake testing at a large scale. As on 3rd July, the total number of tests done in India are 6,737 per million population. This figure in no way compares with the testing figures of the US and the worst affected countries in Europe. Compared to India’s 6,737 tests, US has done 1.07 lac tests per million population. Similarly  Germany, Spain, UK, and Italy have done 70,102, 1.16 lacs, 1.46 lacs, 90,946 tests per million population respectively. Russia has done 2.04 crore tests while as India has done 92.97 lac tests even though the population of India is 10 times more to that of Russia. The very low rate of testing in India becomes abundantly clear when compared with China. Though the virus was restricted to only few states in China yet it has done 9.04 crore tests compared to India’s 92.97 lac tests.

The post lockdown migrant labour crisis which the country was embarrassed to witness is also believed to be a reason for having failed to flatten the curve. In a denial about the migrant labour crisis, unfortunately, the government sat on it, trying to delay the inevitable. By the time the government accepted the crisis, the damage was already done. Large number of migrant workers started travelling back to the rural India with the virus which many of them  had contracted  while living in crowded shanties in red zones of urban India. What was needed was to take care-off them by setting proper camps and providing them with food and some cash-in-hand, which unfortunately the governments failed to arrange. The impossible journey that the migrant labourers undertook with unbearable pain and sufferings was reflective of their desperation due to the lack of economic and social security. Hundreds died on their way back, collateral damage ! No country has witnessed even a single death of poor labourers due to lack of food, or due to arduous journey back home.

Restoration of ‘Liquor Economy’ in the midst of the pandemic is likely to have also added to the problem. Just to shore up falling revenues, most of the state governments have allowed opening up of liquor shops which saw huge rush of people without following social distancing norms. This mad rush of people is sure to have spread this contagious disease further. Besides, the lockdown could not be forced on large portions of the population like people living in crowded places, slums, and in rural India.

When on 25th March nationwide lockdown 1.0 was announced, the total number of infected cases in the country were just 657. During the month of April when lockdown 2.0 was announced, the average number of new cases per day was 1,115.53 and in the month of June when unlock 1.0 was announced, the average number of new cases reported per day was 13,172.76. These statistical figures give rise to two questions. One, was it too early to impose the lockdown on 25th March when the total number of cases were just 657? Two, was it the right time to announce unlock 1.0 when more than 20 thousand new cases were being added every day? Well, the jury is out.

In no case we were too early to impose the national lockdown from 25th March. Since the disease is highly contagious, therefore, the only way to deal with this pandemic was to stop it from spreading in the community which among other things required early identification and  isolation of the infected persons. Had the lock down not been announced early, the problem would have been extremely worse, and out of control by now. So it is wrong to argue that the lockdown has failed. We could not achieve the desired results during the lockdown due to the failure of the government to take crucial parallel measures particularly testing at a large scale and contact tracing in an effective manner. Had the government been more proactive in stopping the international travel, particularly from Europe, USA and other affected countries in early February, we would have been in a very comfortable position today. More appropriate would have been to make 14 days institutional quarantine mandatory for all the inbound international travellers from early February. This would have enabled to nip this virus in the bud, by detecting and isolating the carriers of the virus right at the entry points. By doing so perhaps there would have been no need to go for national lockdown which had a devastating impact of our economy.

The decision to unlock in the midst of rising number of cases is being questioned. Critics argue that like the sudden decision of lockdown, the decision to unlock was equally bizarre as all scientific models recommend to unlock only when the curve flattened with sustained decrease in the number of daily new cases. The decision to unlock or not, was a tight rope walk for the government in view of the rising number of new cases on the one hand, and the deteriorating health of an economy on the other hand. From health safety wise, it was not the right time to unlock but from an overall perspective, the government had little choice but to reopen, to alleviate the economic sufferings of people. This decision was prompted by the fact that the economy was struggling on all fronts; skyrocketing unemployment, dwindling government finances, etc.

To jumpstart the economy, the government decided to unlock gradually while putting in place requisite safeguards to keep risks under control. Ultimately, it is the way people behave that will determine the future success in controlling the virus from spreading further. People are expected to take all the necessary precautions like, move out only when necessary, while moving out use face masks, avoid crowded places, maintain social distancing, and proper hygiene. But it is disappointing to see that people in general hardly bother to observe these safety measures while moving out, thus posing a great danger of community spread. USA is a vivid example for all of us to see, that after flattening the curve witnessed a significant spike in new cases. The only reason for this sad state of affairs has been that people in general did not bother to follow safety measures while moving out. Similar situation is shaping up in India as well due to the failure of the people to realise the gravity of the situation, and the need to adhere to the safety measures recommended by the experts. Therefore, the outlook for the future in India remains uncertain and more worrying. Since unlock 1.0 there is no stopping in the daily rise in new cases. This is a wake-up call for the government and the people. Given the behaviour of the people in general, the government needs to make people to follow safety measures.

Author is Professor in the Dept. of Commerce University of Kashmir.