Beyond Politics: Why The Nation Must Come Together In Battling Covid-19 Pandemic
We need every district to succeed. Only then, every state can succeed. Only if all the states succeed, the nation can succeed.
The fight against the pandemic has to be beyond politics.
The lack of data about Covid-19 and the potential for second and third waves of infection, leaves policy-makers dealing with a lot of uncertainty.
When do we lift the national lockdown? Will a district-wise smart lockdown handle spikes going forward? When do we allow inter-district travel? Trains? Planes? What to do with migrant labour that is stuck in red or hotspot districts?
Wide Varieties Of Lockdown
Amongst democracies, India has, perhaps, opted for the strictest of lockdowns with Sweden at the other end with probably the mildest lockdown. The US,UK and other European democracies have imposed lockdowns that are tighter in varying degrees than Sweden but lighter than India.
While we all can have an opinion on which model is more successful as of today, all of our opinions may change dramatically over the next year.
Scenarios – One Year From Now
In May 2021, there may be three possible world scenarios:
(a) The world has defeated the pandemic and the disease only exists, if at all, as an epidemic in a few regions or as an outbreak in very few places.
(b) The pandemic is active and all countries are in the same boat, with similar number of deaths and similar percentage of populations infected, irrespective of when the first infection was detected and irrespective of whatever lockdown strategy adopted in early 2020. Countries that partially saved their economies by pursuing a moderate lockdown or lifting the lockdown early are at least financially better.
(c) The pandemic is moderately active, but the world is divided into four groups:
A. Countries that are better off on both infection and economic parameters;
B. Countries that are better off on infection but worse on economic parameters;
C. Countries that are better off on economic parameters but worse on infection parameters;
D. Countries that are worse off on both economic and infection parameters.
Obviously, no political leadership in the world (except may be Sweden) believes that scenario (b) is likely. Actions of most countries indicate that political leaders are betting on scenario (a) or at worst that their country is in group A of scenario (c). Many political leaders will be without a job if scenario (b) turns out to be true.
What We Don’t Know
As of today, it is impossible to say which scenario will materialise or even assign probabilities to each scenario as we don’t know the following:
(a) A number of asymptomatic infections that are never diagnosed; what percentage of the infected population is asymptomatic? How infectious are asymptomatic Covid-19 patients?
(b) The period of post-infection immunity – is it one year or shorter or longer? Unlike the measles infection that offers life-long immunity, flu infections don’t even guarantee immunity for one year. Read this to understand the efficacy of flu vaccine and flu reinfections. We are struggling to figure out how quickly Covid-19 re-infections can occur.
Standards To Upgrade A Red Or Hotspot District
The Indian political leadership is definitely betting that it is possible to stop the coronavirus, isolate it and the lockdown will enable India to become Covid-10 free.
The government’s ambitions are demonstrated by the standard that it has defined for upgrading a red or hotspot district: a 14-day period of no Covid-19 infections to become an orange zone and another 14-day period of no Covid-19 infections to become a green zone.
Clearly, they expect to achieve this throughout the country and early indications are that several parts of the country are able to achieve this.
Unfortunately, it is possible that some of the red districts, especially the ones with high population densities, may not be able to become Covid-19 free for a 28-day period in a reasonable time frame.
Currently, travel to the red districts is highly restricted – only essential service trucks are allowed to enter and leave, nobody else can.
But for how many months can a tight lockdown and travel restrictions continue in red districts? How many months can we lockdown urban districts that contribute a very large portion of India’s gross domestic product (GDP)? (Opening up production in green districts will be meaningless if their customers in red urban districts are locked down).
Pressure Is Mounting To Ease The Lockdown
The plight of the poor, the daily wagers and migrant labour is heartrending. They are paying the biggest price for the lockdown and as a democratic society we have to find a solution. Also, the economy was not in a great shape to begin with, before the pandemic.
The extended lockdown is doing immense damage especially with the agricultural sector where farmers are throwing away thousands of crores of perishables.
Industry is also stressed, the non-performing assets (NPAs) in the banking system will also rise and the government has to open the economy before the damage becomes irreparable.
Quite rightly, the government eased some of the restrictions on 20 April and will continue to do more. But it is important that the government puts forward a workable framework for re-opening the economy.
The key will be solving the problem of migrant labour that is clamouring to go home. Moving millions of migrant labour will be a logistical challenge that will have to be literally executed like an army operation.
May be armed forces personnel will be required to take them to their homes, keep them in quarantine camps so that they don’t carry the infection. Government must seriously consider allowing migrant labour to travel from red districts in a safe manner.
Effectiveness Of Indian Strategy As On Date
National level R0 (R-subscript-0) is clearly declining with number of days to double increasing from less than four days before the lockdown to eight days or so now.
However, as of 22 April, we don’t seem to be on a path where we can say India as a whole or any of the Indian states is crushing the virus. The authorities are realising that we cannot have a national strategy going forward and we need a district-wise strategy.
As a Mumbai resident, I am tracking the following data (I also track data in my ward, where Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or BMC shares number of cases and number of recovered).
Surely, as a citizen we are all entitled to know more data about each of our districts especially number of tests and number of days for cases doubling for each district along with all of the above data.
Hopefully, the government will share more district-wise data so that citizens can monitor, support and help improve local governments’ performance.
The key worry is that infections that are being currently detected probably happened after the lockdown (all pre-lockdown infections should have been detected by now).
What is the source of current infection is important to know. Are these relatives or contacts of previously detected Covid-19 cases? Are these people in essential services (we should be regularly testing essential services employees now, even if they don’t report symptoms)?
The larger the number of unknown infections the more likely we have asymptomatic spreaders of the virus. Unless asymptomatic spreaders come forward (noticing too many of their friends and family becoming Covid-19 positive), it would be very difficult to locate them.
Another idea that needs to be implemented throughout the nation is the idea of ‘colour-coded passes’. Instead of allowing everybody to move around for purchasing essential groceries/medicines every day, some districts like Trichy (in Tamil Nadu) and Chandarpur (in Maharashtra) have issued colour-coded passes that allow citizens to shop only on designated days of the week.
Colour-coded passes reduce pressure on groceries and can even reduce traffic on the road.
District Magistrates Must Do The Tightrope Walk
The central government will have to decide when to open travel between districts, what kind of travel and between what kind of districts. But within the district, it is best to provide latitude to district administrations.
Decisions to ease the lockdown must be driven by district-level data – if the R0 in the district falls below one, the district must be changed to green even though there may be some Covid-19 cases.
Currently, the focus of the district administrations is quite rightly, only to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases.
However, in line with “Jaan Bhi and Jahan Bhi”, post 3 May when the lockdown is further eased, targets for the district magistrates has to be set as a balance between lives and livelihoods.
The government effort to open the economy is hindered by unreasonable threats of first information reports (FIRs) on managements of businesses and factories, if there is an unfortunate infection in the workplace.
Governments can and must insist on ‘reduced staff/labour’ in factories, shops and offices so that social distancing can be maintained. Penal action may be necessary if standards are not maintained but there is no way the managements can banish the virus. An official in a central government ministry has tested positive for Covid-19, but we can’t be writing FIRs against the cabinet minister, can we?
We need every district to succeed. Only then, every state can succeed. Only if all the states succeed, the nation can succeed. The fight against the pandemic has to be beyond politics.
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