The novel coronavirus pandemic has befuddled one and all. It’s more than a year since Covid-19 became a global nuisance but even experts are not able to give clear answers about various aspects of the nature of the virus.
To give an example, we still don’t know why the number of cases suddenly started dropping in India as the winters sat in and why they are rising rapidly now at the onset of summer season. Exactly opposite of this was supposed to happen.
We also don’t know why richer states were hit more hard than the poorer ones. This played out internationally too. We can guess but are not able to say for sure. And again, there are exceptions to the above examples which makes it all so much more baffling.
Sadly, the things more bewildering than Covid-19 are the policies adopted by the governments across the world in tackling this once in a century challenge.
Take lockdowns, for instance. In my opinion, they were successful in only two cases - China and India. The former showed that they can work wonders given you do it right (in a completely authoritarian way with a compliant population following them seriously and responsibly).
The latter couldn’t succeed like the Chinese primarily because of the Tablighi Jamaat super spreaders who took it to poor ghettoes across the length and breadth of the country and this section of the population which became the first victim behaved highly irresponsibly and carelessly. Then the migrant crisis occurred which made it impossible to suppress the virus. However, the initial lockdown was still quite strict and majority of the people followed it out of fear or civil responsibility.
This ensured that cases rose slowly and the interim period allowed the governments to scale up testing and healthcare facilities.
Result? The curve of daily cases was not crushed like in China but stretched so much that the health infra didn’t collapse under the burden of incoming patients.
But can the lockdown still be used as a strategy?
India went into national lockdown on 24 March, almost a year back. India had a couple of labs for testing, non-existent infra to handle Covid-19 cases, nil knowledge about therapeutics and no one was even talking about vaccine. That’s not the case today. We have two approved vaccines with capacity to give jabs to millions per day.
We know how greatly effective masks alone are to check the spread of the virus. The virus has weakened to a great extent as is evident from the death rate - not just in India but across the world. Fatalities per X diagnosed cases are a fraction of what they were a year back.
Even at the peak of first Covid-19 wave, India managed it quite well. Now that the hospitalisation rate (per X diagnosed cases) is much lower, we are in position to handle even a much bigger second wave.
Clearly, there is no need for blunt instruments like lockdowns today for they extract much higher price in form of economic costs. Moreover, there is little appetite in masses to follow restrictions on mobility today and such orders are likely to be ineffective on the ground.
But for some administrators, no evidence seems to lessen the attractiveness of lockdowns or its more illogical cousin - the night curfews.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has hinted that lockdown can be imposed in parts of the state.
Madhya Pradesh has announced a weekend lockdown in Indore, Bhopal and Jabalpur - another ridiculous non-solution aimed at only sending the signal that the government is doing something.
Gujarat has opted for night curfews in various districts just days after the authorities allowed for the world’s biggest stadium to be filled to the capacity where only few were seen wearing masks.
Punjab government has closed down education institutions until 31 March just when they had started opening up after a year. This when we know for certain that the young and children have the least risk to Covid-19.
Of course, they can be asymptomatic and spread it to others but that’s where the masking and vaccines to the vulnerable should come in, not closure of these places of learning, something that has hurt millions of students and did heavy economic and psychological damage to the teaching community which is deprived salaries for as long as they don’t work.
Even containment zones are a luxury that our economy can‘t afford. Instead, the government should go for rapid tests in localities where positive cases are being found in large numbers. Isolate the infected in homes and allow everyone to move freely. Personal responsibility should take precedence over state enforcement in residential areas now.
Restrictions on restaurants, theatres, inter-state travel via air or rail, tourist places are coming into force again weeks after they had barely started to return to normalcy. But hypocrisy of the politicians continue unabated.
While Amarinder Singh places restrictions on political activity in worst hit areas, he fully supports thousands of farmers sitting on Delhi’s borders.
BJP chief ministers are announcing restrictions in their states for upcoming festival season including for Holi celebrations but the same leaders and their party continues to organise election rallies in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry and Assam with tens of thousands of people who are neither donning masks or keeping distance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is leading from the front in rallying people for the BJP in these states while he expressed worry over second wave in online meet with the CMs.
Probably the only thing that explains the reasoning behind the states resorting to illogical and redundant policies to check Covid-19 is power and rent-seeking apart from the urge to be seen to be doing something. More the restrictions on businesses and individuals, more the avenues to extract money open for the State.
Given the extent of powers bestowed on officials by the Epidemic Diseases Act, the scope for rent seeking is tremendous. Then there is power factor - states won’t easily give up the arbitrary power they have gained during the pandemic via numerous rules which arguably can’t even be challenged in the courts.
One hopes that the State administrators will start working seriously about ending this pandemic once and for all rather than thinking on how to extend it longer so they can profit off it for more time.
And the right way forward is to use masks, use more rapid antigen tests for quick detection, isolation or quarantine at home and most importantly - vaccinate at least five to ten million people per day.
Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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