How World Cup City Bhubaneswar Lost Its Way In COVID-19 Management

The whole world would have been celebrating the opening of the 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Instead, we are in the grip of COVID-19 pandemic — witnessing the spike and flattening of curve in different countries across the globe. The world is on one page as it seeks a way out from the clutches of this deadly virus.

On the other side we have Bhubaneswar, a city which hosted the 2018 Men’s Hockey World Cup and also had a link with the Tokyo 2020 Games as it saw first-hand some of the hockey teams through to the Olympics, but is now under lockdown. So what’s the difference between two cities as Tokyo flattened its curve while Bhubaneswar’s COVID-19 story got disrupted?

The first week of Lockdown 2.0 ends in the Odisha capital today, but there’s no sign of flattening of the COVID-19 curve. A fresh look is necessary towards handling the pandemic as a city can’t survive with one form or the other of shutdown for too long. Extraordinary situations do require extraordinary actions.

Lockdown, or shutdown as some call it, was introduced to slow down the spread of COVID-19 infection. It was meant to be a process by which government would get enough time to build appropriate infrastructure to deal with the pandemic or let the virus get eliminated in the process.

It’s been over 100 days now since lockdown was implemented, and there’s no end in sight to the pandemic.

Bhubaneswar neither falls in the category of ‘global city’ nor global COVID-19 hotspot, like Madrid, London, New York, Seoul, Milan, Tokyo etc which suffered a lot due to the sudden outbreak of coronavirus and presence of people of various nationalities triggered a sharp spike in these cities before they could build medical infrastructure.

At the beginning, Bhubaneswar was way ahead in preparedness to deal with public health crisis.

When Bhubaneswar woke up to its first COVID-19 positive case on March 15 — a home returnee from Milan — social media blamed irresponsibility of the person, looking at travel history. Four-and-a-half months down the line, Bhubaneswar now has more than a thousand cases of infection, yet no one questions irresponsibility.

The week before Lockdown 2.0 started, the city was functioning as if it was amidst festive season. Barring hotels, restaurants, malls, other services were allowed to open from 5 am to 6 pm, which was further extended up to 9 pm with weekend shutdown.

It was as if Bhubaneswar was celebrating victory over the coronavirus. This love story actually ignored the fact that the invisible virus had spread into every other neighbourhood across the city within a month’s time, putting pressure on its medical infrastructure. That convinced the government to order a lockdown of 14 days, post the 100-day period.

The hope now is discovery of a vaccine, with the Odisha government establishing a dialogue with an institution that is likely to manufacture vaccine once human trials are successful. The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, has alerted the globe not to expect a vaccine before early 2021.

Does this mean Odisha, which was once in the driver’s seat vis-à-vis tackling the pandemic, is now completely dependent on the discovery of vaccine to move out of COVID-19 regime? In such a scenario, the state needs a sound policy to encourage its people to stay under lockdown with little flexibility for the rest of the year or until the vaccine is available for the public.

When saving life becomes priority over livelihood, then lockdown seems only medium to surrender than dealing with invisible virus. If this sounds inevitable then is this the process that the rest of the world followed in the path to recovery, the answer is simply No.

So what differentiates Bhubaneswar or other Indian cities from rest of the world that have either recovered or are in the process of doing so, like Spain, South Korea, Italy, UK, Japan, etc.

The first factor is discipline, which was breached from wearing mask to maintaining social distancing during lockdown.

Today, Tokyo would have been dressed up to welcome the world but Japan’s dream of hosting the Olympics got postponed by a year. But significantly, Japan did overcome COVID-19 without ever implementing a full lockdown. It barred foreign travellers who had visited hard-hit countries and urged residents to follow social distancing guidelines. Restaurants and shops were also closed earlier than normal. Karaoke bars, live music venues and gyms were shuttered. Perhaps Japan’s success include a culture of wearing face masks and obedience to government requests, and the effectiveness of the country’s contact-tracing system.

In reality, lockdown hasn’t flattened the curve so far in Bhubaneswar. Rather there is an upward trend. Perhaps Lockdown 2.0 could have been avoided in Bhubaneswar had the state government adopted slow mobility, slow economic revival and slow lifestyle that most of the global cities followed on their recovery path.

Effective tools to move out of lockdown like introducing staggered working hours in city, effective social distancing, wearing face mask, moving with bicycle or walk as far as possible could have been stressed upon.

Pandemic calls for the administration to balance the 3 Ls — Life, Livelihood and Lockdown. Even though everyone knew life won’t be the same like in pre-pandemic times, why did the government expect Bhubaneswar city to function like pre-pandemic regime in post-lockdown period?

Perhaps it’s high time that the government thinks of opening city activities in staggered manner with office hours beginning at 8 am and closing by 4 pm. Commercial business, shops etc may be opened by 9 am and close by 6 pm, barring essential services. Restaurants may operate till 10 pm or so. The benefit of working early will provide ample day light for formal working class people and those in informal sector to spend time with their dear ones in the evening.

Time has come to look at COVID-19 beyond public health crisis – and as public policy management. Because a city is all about 3 Ps – People, Place, Planet – and not just for stray animals or for medicine shops or business houses or cars etc.

So those who run the city need to focus on discipline and make use of the opportunity for a better society.

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