Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Failed Lockdown’ Claim Needs To Be Taken With A Bag Of Salt

Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Failed Lockdown’ Claim Needs To Be Taken With A Bag Of Salt

by R Jagannathan - Tuesday, June 9, 2020 02:42 PM IST
Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Failed Lockdown’ Claim Needs To Be Taken With A Bag Of SaltCongress leader Rahul Gandhi.
  • Neither the lockdown nor the unlocking was irrational decisions given the information we had at the relevant time.

    Rahul Gandhi should peddle his theories elsewhere.

You can also read this in Hindi- लॉकडाउन के विफल होने का राहुल गांधी का दावा संदेहास्पद

A few days ago, Rahul Gandhi put out a few charts on Twitter, contrasting India’s Covid-19 lockdown with those in Europe. The charts show India winding down its lockdown even as virus infections are rising, while in Europe lockdowns were lifted well after the infection curve was “flattened.”

Gandhi headlined his charts: “This is what a failed lockdown looks like”. The charts given were those of India, Germany, Spain, Britain, Italy.

The tweet by Rahul Gandhi.
The tweet by Rahul Gandhi.

Maybe, Gandhi has a point. And maybe not. We will know only much later whether this is a “failed” lockdown or not, for it is premature to judge India’s performance at this juncture. For several reasons.

One, the lockdown isn’t over in many key states and cities of India. So, while there is no national lockdown covering every village, district and town, it is very much there in significant parts of India. So, while it is fair to say that the country is unlocking, it is also continuing to remain locked in many places.

Effectively, what we have done is a shift from a draconian national lockdown to smarter localised lockdowns. This time states and cities are leading the fight, with the Centre merely providing overall guidance and protocols for unlocking.

Two, isn’t it just possible that we have consciously chosen livelihoods over lives without emphatically saying so? The rich West can lock down endlessly and its people won’t slip back into mass poverty just because of Covid-19.

In India, we simply can’t afford a slide back to joblessness and poverty. My reading of Unlock 1.0 is that we have consciously chosen livelihoods over lives, especially since the initial months of the lockdown told us that the virus isn’t actually a huge killer. It is doing far less damage than tuberculosis, diabetes and heart disease. Even the seasonal flu and monsoon-related diseases can be as bad sometimes in some parts of the country.

Three, the charts are misleading for a more important reason: India is effectively a continent. It is thrice as large as the EU in terms of population (excluding the United Kingdom). Three Indian states put together (Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar) have an estimated population of 486 million against the EU’s 446 million. So, the logical standard of comparison should be specific Indian states with specific EU countries, and not the whole of India.

Four, when the metric is changed from infections to mortality, the picture changes completely. According to data put out by John Hopkins University, the United Kingdom topped the charts in terms of deaths per million population at 61. Italy’s score was 56, the US’s 34.

Germany, the best performer in Europe against Covid-19, still had 8,783 deaths, yielding a mortality rate of 12 per million population. South Korea, which did even better and is being touted as a model for tackling Covid-19, had 274 deaths, and a mortality rate of 5.4 per million.

<i>Source: John Hopkins University</i>
Source: John Hopkins University

And India’s mortality rate? Just 0.53 per cent, far less than 1 per cent. India’s infection rate may be understated due to lower testing and 80 per cent asymptomatic cases, but deaths cannot be hidden. This would imply not that we removed the lockdown too soon, but that we may have imposed it nationally too early. This is what is being corrected.

Five, even in India, some states – Kerala, Karnataka, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha among them – did fairly well to contain the virus in its first run, but may now be facing a second wave as people move around and the old lockdown rules are eased.

Worrying trends in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are now being reversed, with sharp increases in recovery rates. Some states even have recoveries exceeding fresh cases (Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan). Only Maharashtra, Delhi and Tamil Nadu are huge causes for concern, but even here cases may be peaking.

A fair assessment and criticism of India’s Covid stance would be the following: we imposed a national lockdown a bit too soon, and should have focused on limiting it to the riskiest cities and districts. Unlock 1.0 from 1 June is about correcting this mistake, and it implies that we are moving from blunt instrument to surgical strike. From dumb lockdown to smart lockdown.

In justification for the early lockdown, it is more than likely that the high infection rates and deaths in Europe forced our government to act fast to prevent a possible catastrophe, when we neither had the testing and healthcare facilities to handle a mass outbreak, nor the data to estimate how it would impact us.

The first two phases of the lockdown up to April-end were possibly necessary in order to give ourselves breathing space to limber up, and the next two were beginning to be counter-productive as livelihoods were being damaged needlessly.

May, when migrants began returning to their homes in large numbers, was a crucial month of realisation where the government consciously decided to put livelihoods above lives, especially given our experience of low mortality rates.

The emerging data helped us make the decision, while in March, when the national lockdown was imposed, we didn’t have the data, and the only information we had was from Europe. And that picture was not pretty. We could have taken the South Korean model, but it was probably not implementable in ultra-diverse India.

All in all, neither the lockdown nor the unlocking was irrational decisions given the information we had at the relevant time.

A caveat: even as countries lift the lockdown or reduce its severity, the World Health Organization has warned of a second wave, where the entire world will may again be faced with the livelihoods versus lives choice. The next time, our decisions will be easier to make.

Rahul Gandhi should peddle his theories elsewhere.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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