Corona Diaries 30: Between Lockdown & Unlocking Some Unsettling Questions
India is unlocking. This is when COVID-19 cases are on the threshold of two lakh, the seventh maximum in the world. And experts say we are still nowhere near the peak; it is still about a month or more till we get there. The number of deaths is mounting too. The calibrated unlocking begins after two months of lockdown marred by asymmetry in decision-making, lack of coordination between the Centre and the states and among states, the migrant crisis, and a whole lot of confusion. Given the enormity of the situation and dearth of resources available, the chaos was understandable. A pandemic is not what a country can anticipate and prepare for before it strikes.
The unlocking, as is evident now, has little to do with the spread of the virus or the matter of public health. Governments may be claiming they are more ready now with more beds and more recoveries but it is hard not to come to the conclusion that they have given up. Their primary concern is reviving economic activities, and the decision to unlock is solely an economic one. One cannot blame them for it too much though. They are running out of money to run the show and cannot sustain a longer lockdown. A large number of people with no jobs is recipe for social tension, which can become unmanageable. Whatever their compulsions, the latest decision on lockdown raises uncomfortable questions about consistency of approach.
In hindsight, the whole business of locking and unlocking appears intriguing. In some other countries majorly affected by COVID-19, the easing comes after signs of decline in number of cases and deaths. In some, the lockdown was calibrated from the beginning, meaning some normal activities were allowed to continue. Our lockdown, say COVID-watchers, was the harshest, and arguably the most efficient. To the less knowledgeable like us, who would like to draw inferences from facts visible, the results from it appear unimpressive. Experts may differ, but a good move on their part right now would be to convince people that we have been on the right track and there is a logical continuity in our actions.
WHAT HAS CHANGED?
The facts available to us raise the basic question: We had a lockdown announced when there were a low number of cases, why are we lifting it when cases are galloping? Different states have adopted different approaches – Odisha, for example, has been consistent about its belief in lockdown — but the general tendency is towards allowing normal activity to resume. The contention that we have ramped up our infrastructure to accommodate more patients does not wash. What was a trickle earlier now threatens to be a deluge, far too big for our newly-attained capacity. Given we stand where we were two months ago, maybe in a situation far worse – there were 564 cases and 10 deaths before March 24; till June 2 we had 1.98 lakh cases and close to 6,000 deaths – the lockdown should have continued. The assumption back then that the disease would spread rapidly and cripple the economy stands more valid now.
Should we have adopted a calibrated lockdown, rather than an absolute one, like we are doing in the case of reopening? That perhaps would have made our approach more consistent.
THE BUCK RESTS WITH PEOPLE
The position of governments, like it or not, passes the responsibility of the disease onto people. If they are careless, they would pay the price. The government would take care of hospitalisation and treatment, whatever is available, but the onus of not contacting the disease rests with people. When several leaders of states echoed the view of some health experts that the disease was not going away anytime soon and we have to live with it, it was obvious that the attempt to contain the disease was going nowhere, especially in the absence of a vaccine, and they had few options left. Some responsibility had to be passed on to the masses.
It’s not a bad idea. Many people took the lockdown as a deliberate move to curtail their freedom. They had frequent face-offs with the enforcers. Now that the latter would have a lesser role, the responsibility of staying safe and be responsible for others, family, friends etc, rests squarely with them. We should expect a refreshing sensitivity in their public conduct now on.
WHY IT’S DOABLE
Let’s stop being grumpy. Maintaining physical distancing in public should not be as onerous a task as it sounds. We can stay clear of malls, theatres, stadiums and places where people are packed close till there’s a green signal from the government. The rest of the activities such as shopping, sport, eating outside, gymming etc can go on as normal, with precautions of course. The only area of discomfort is public transport, for which governments would need a way out.
For young souls in love trying to fight off lockdown blues, here’s an advice. Forget malls, try gardens for rendezvous instead. The air is much fresher these days. And summer flowers can add flavour to romance. And its free! Pay the guard if the situation demands.