Complete lockdowns and shutdowns are counterproductive. These may ensure social distancing, but are destroying livelihoods and damaging the economy. These also require more policing. We must pursue social distancing by less hurtful means.
Social distancing is a must to prevent direct transmission of COVID-19 infection, which occurs when infected persons (even having no symptoms) talk or cough, discharging respiratory droplets which travel some distance and fall on faces of nearby uninfected people. To protect themselves from infected droplets, people must maintain a social distance of 2 metres (6 feet) from each other.
Social distancing actually means infection distancing. If a person without a mask sneezes, the respiratory droplets can travel up to 27 feet, as estimated by MIT scientist Lydia Bourouiba. Then also, experts worldwide claim that coronavirus is airborne. Therefore, social distancing of 6 feet without a mask is not enough.
Wearing a full cover face mask is a must to prevent transmission at the source by blocking respiratory discharges of wearer. If all wear face masks, then everybody is protected from everybody else’s droplets. Research indicates if 80% of people wear masks, it would reduce COVID-19 spread better than a strict lockdown, as reported by Nina Bai of University of California.
Washing hands with soap and water is another must (or, next best, rubbing hands with sanitizer) to remove virus from hands which may have touched contaminated things.
Spread out vendors
Social distancing of common people can be better ensured by widely dispersing supply of all commonly-needed commodities through roadside vendors and locality shops right up to doorstep vendors. Such retail vending points should not be shut down and should be allowed to remain open for longer periods. Persons engaged in the retail vending chains should be recognized as frontline warriors and be trained on infection prevention so as not to become spreaders — a precondition for vending certificates. The Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) is already doing excellent work on these lines, but widespread vending with variety should be more visible in all places.
Even so, there will be wilful violators of social distancing and mask wearing, some of whom may be powerful enough to conduct crowded parties/functions. Violators should be penalized, where possible, and also stigmatized on TV. Exemplary jailing for blatant violations will help greatly. Political parties should also caution cadres.
Police patrolling in PCR vans and surprise checks of malls to nab offenders will also help.
Unfortunately, government silence on viral videos of doctors such as Biswaroop Roychowdhury and Tarun Kothari alleging that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax and masks need not be worn is persuading many to flout the rules.
Sponsor volunteer processions for lifestyle change
Medical experts say that the COVID pandemic may continue for two years. Social distancing is largely a people’s responsibility. It must become a lifestyle till the pandemic vanishes. For this, a people’s movement needs to be generated. Citizens’ groups and NGOs, especially in urban areas, should come forward to organise processions/rallies of local volunteers wearing proper face masks and holding awareness placards. These processions should be repeated several times in different localities to make social distancing fashionable. Fashion is a powerful persuader.
The BMC is doing good work in this direction also by deploying awareness vans, but public processions are more demonstrative. Use of uniform bandana masks (large 60cm by 60cm cloth kerchiefs folded diagonally) will be impressive and easy to copy.
Select activities for continued lockdown judiciously
Authorities should prudently select activities for continued lockdown till the pandemic subsides. Such activities should be restricted to those which involve gatherings in enclosed or indoor spaces where mechanisms to minimise airborne viral load are not yet in place. These would include public transport, places of worship, schools/colleges, non-essential offices/businesses, cinemas, gyms (and even malls without air disinfectors).
Melas and public functions are some crowded outdoor activities that should also continue to be disallowed.
I conclude with the globally trending mantra, the three Ws to ward off COVID-19 — WEAR a mask; WASH your hand with soap and water; WATCH your distance (keep 6 feet apart).