There was an element of surrealism in the air yesterday, as Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray managed the impossible — of instituting a lockdown without instituting a lockdown.
In a desperate, flailing bid to stem the surge of Wuhan virus cases in his state, and involuntarily conjuring images of Alice in Wonderland, Thackeray informed a stunned populace that they had collectively volunteered to impose severe restrictions upon themselves for 15 days.
Prohibitory orders under Section 144 have been imposed across the state from today, all schools, offices, establishments, and public spaces, save those providing essential services, have been shut, and constraints have been placed on movement.
India’s economic engine has been rudely thrust into neutral just when it was revving for a rise.
What’s voluntary about an executive order we can’t rightly say, and mustn’t ask, but as the data and analyses below reveal, this immoderate, despairing move represents the nadir of executive ineptitude, which has inflicted a body-blow to the economy.
First: the timing of this lockdown. It is impossible to believe that Thackeray couldn’t foresee the second wave. Every expert worth his or her salt, and every media house, had been screaming since mid-February that the crisis was resurgent.
The chart below shows it was clear as mud that a second wave was rather firmly on since 9 February:
The movement of the red line (daily cases) confirms a second surge by 9 February, and, that a clear, rising trend had established itself within a fortnight.
More than any other parameter, the daily test positivity ratio (TPR; green line; daily cases by samples tested) had in fact begun to rise from late January 2021, and should have rung alarm bells in the Maharashtra secretariat at that point of time itself.
Why then did Thackeray wait two whole months before springing into action?
Second, was a ‘voluntary’ lockdown the only option? No. In fact, Prime Minister Modi made it abundantly clear during his address of 8 April, that having learnt from the past, the preferred approach was micro-containments, rather than a clumsy, debilitating, blanket lockdown.
Micro-containments were more laborious to enforce than full-scale lockdowns, he said, but they had proved to be far more effective, and far less disruptive.
Swarajya presciently substantiated this option using epidemic data on 13 April, before Thackeray made his announcement. And yet, the Maharashtra Chief Minister still chose to exercise the administratively-easier option. Why?
The only good news is rapidly enhanced testing levels, but even that is more a function of individual self-preservation, using previously-established capacity, than any visionary administrative endeavour.
The third, critical issue which tests state managerial competence is oxygen. One segment of Thackeray’s televised broadcast included an appeal to the Central government, to urgently airlift oxygen to Maharashtra since it was in short supply there.
This merits analysis in some detail, and highlights the barrenness of political leadership.
In 2020, when the daily case count in India was one lakh, the daily oxygen requirement of hospitals to treat serious corona-positive patients was about 2,500 tonnes per day.
This is against a 2020 production capacity of 7,000 tonnes per day, which was in the process of being augmented nationwide. At 1.8 lakh cases today, that requirement figure would be around 4,500 tonnes per day.
Thus, since Maharashtra accounts for about 30 per cent of total current cases, the state’s medical oxygen needs would be approximately 1,400 tonnes per day.
Now note: the largest manufacturers of oxygen in the country, like INOX, are located in Pune, Maharashtra. Consequently, any forward-thinking state government would have started sourcing and stockpiling oxygen locally from at least early March, or at worst, late-March.
Liquid oxygen storage bullets are fairly common in India, and particularly so in a heavily industrialised state like Maharashtra.
Believe it or not, Indiamart actually retails such prefabricated units online, for Rs. 18-23 lakhs per piece.
Instead, Thackeray chose to delay appealing for oxygen by almost two months, until after the crisis was fully upon him. And just look at the whimsical, imperious nature of his appeal — to have the Army fly oxygen into Maharashtra (as if it is the Army which runs the Air Force’s Transport Command) — when he could so easily have built up stock from local sources, in exactly those places where the epidemic is raging the most.
Nonetheless, let us temporarily humour Thackeray and study the logistics of his airlift: a C-17 Globemaster can carry 70 tonnes. Factoring in the weight of a gas bullet, that means a maximum of 40 to 50 tonnes per flight. (All of this of course assumes, without basis, that these gas containers are safe for air transportation, since oxygen is a highly volatile and instantly combustible gas, which can cause a massive explosion with the slightest spark).
So it might be technically doable at a pinch.
But the problem is that Thackeray gave no indications in his broadcast, of how much oxygen he wanted airlifted (by the Army, mind you), for how long, or to where.
Was it 200 tonnes a day to Nagpur for a month, or twice that volume to Mumbai for a week, or some other capricious permutation?
This is the sorry state of epidemic management in Maharashtra today, when a Chief Minister helplessly wrings his hands and plaintively asking the Central government to fly in unspecified volumes of liquid oxygen at the last minute (an item which he could have sourced locally), but fails to specify quanta, destinations or durations.
Combining a failure to stockpile medical oxygen in advance, with a decision to go for a blanket lockdown instead of micro-containments as advised, and a delayed response of two months after the second wave began, does the Maharashtra state government’s image little good, and augurs poorly for the situation.
Instead, dawdling incertitude and indecisive inchoation have led to a case of too much too late. India’s economic heart has been forced into confinement, just when it was getting set to pump up a banner year, and millions of livelihoods have been pushed to the brink once more.
Still, for the literarily-inclined, Lewis Carroll might have been proud of this surreal effort, to present a government-ordered lockdown as a ‘voluntary Janata curfew’.
(All data from Covid19india.org)
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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