The new mutant strain of Covid-19 that has a 70 per cent increased potential for transmission, which has brought Britain to its knees and spooked Europe, should not lead to another round of lockdowns and economic movement restrictions.
Britain is already under Tier-4 lockdown, which means all non-essential work and services, especially leisure and entertainment, will stay shut, and even friends cannot meet except in public places. You cannot invite people to your home. (Read here for details on what a tier-4 lockdown means).
India cannot afford to cripple its rising economic activities further, come what may.
Our earlier response, of a total lockdown from March to May before slowly opening up, was the right thing to do at that time when the country had just one testing lab, and very little capacity to produce face masks, personal protection equipment (PPE) or ventilators, leave alone enough hospital beds and isolation wards. All these had to be created from scratch. But none of these constraints apply today. This time our response has to be significantly different.
In one line, it means no lockdowns, no curfews, no significant movement curbs, but only more testing and more emphasis on personal protection.
The government’s initial moves, of stopping flights from the United Kingdom, and insisting on RT-PCR tests for all those who arrived from that country is partly right, but beyond one week’s flight disruptions, we should be clear that livelihoods have to take precedence over lives.
The last time we did the following: between March-end and May-end, we had nearly a total lockdown of economic activity, and bans on flights and passenger movement even by train and bus. The reverse migration crisis, where the poor who had no jobs in cities wanted to flee to the relative safety of villages and small towns in their home states, was handled adequately only after pictures of poor people walking hundreds of miles surfaced in the media.
It was only in June, when the unlock phase began cautiously, that the economic damage began to be undone. But around June it was the turn of the states to begin large-scale lockdowns in their big cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc), and it was this phase that damaged economic growth in the first quarter so badly. When the country’s urban growth engines are shut, gross domestic product (GDP) will indeed collapse.
While it is still not clear whether the new superspreader strain has actually arrived in India in significant numbers, it would be wise to presume that it has. Our travel bans and night curfews and lockdowns did not prevent the spread the last time. It was only when we boosted our daily testing rates to an average of one million that the problem began to be contained. We are now in a position to declare at least a partial victory in round one of the war against the virus.
If we want to win round two against a more deadly mutant virus without endangering the economy again, we must do the following.
One, as stated, we have to presume that the new strain is already here, and we must ramp up daily testing in cities, and expand contact tracing while it is still possible to limit the number of potential infectees to hundreds rather than thousands and lakhs. Quarantine regulations must be tighter, with better enforcement than the last time.
Two, this time the protocols must be heavily loaded in favour of RT-PCR tests, and not RATs (rapid antigen tests), which only look at a person’s antibody count. RATs should be used only for widespread sero-surveys and not for actual detection of the presence of the Covid-19 mutant in those showing symptoms or even those who are asymptomatic. Genomic sequencing must be done on an extensive scale to check if the mutant has already arrived in significant numbers in India.
Three, flight bans and night curfews – as imposed by the Centre and Maharashtra this week – should be abandoned in favour of more testing before boarding, and aggressive testing among the populations most likely to have been exposed to this new mutant. While night curfews are not likely to be too damaging to economic activity, they still impact many services, including restaurants and pubs, not to speak of slowing down the movement of essentials to cities. The only way to contain the spread is to test more, insist on routine testing at regular intervals for those who have to move around frequently (truck and bus drivers, hospital staff, schools, colleges, etc). Blanket bans on movements should not be contemplated at all.
Four, the right response to the possibility of spreading infections in public transport is to expand bus and metro services, and also work-from-home. Buying or leasing more buses (many are idle as offices are working at minimal staff strength), staggering office hours in all metros and mini-metros, and asking all non-essential staff to work from home should be the norm.
And yes, masking and hand-washing need to be re-emphasised. Life must go on, and tripping livelihoods to save lives is no longer an option for us. This time we have to do it differently. What was right in March-May 2020 is not right for 2021. That time we didn’t know better, now we do.
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