Just when India was revelling for escaping the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic with limited damage (compared to Europe, the US and the UK), all hell broke loose with the second wave, with the country crossing the mark of 3 lakh infections per day. Odisha too broke its record of infections in the first wave.
The irony is that we were taken off guard the first time in 2020 with limited options to deal with the situation but this time around, we knew what to do as a society and country, when to act with targeted interventions.
As the pandemic drags on and cases keep rising, we must look at a comprehensive approach in dealing with it, using every tool in the toolbox.
Odisha has had its share of casualties with many cities and districts reporting an increase in hospitalisation, intensive care bed occupancy and shortage of oxygen supply. A point to be noted is that this is an uneven pandemic. Cities and towns have responded to it differently, and have been affected differently.
Almost 90% of all cases reported in Odisha last week were from 10 districts or so, and almost half of all cases were from just a few cities and towns. For every city and towns that are experiencing an increase, there are many others that have successfully prevented or controlled widespread transmission with proven measures.
Those measures continue to be the best defense against COVID-19. Never in the recent history of public health have so many strategies been used to respond to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic. At the moment it is scientifically and ethically problematic.
The vast majority of people in Bhubaneswar were told of achieving herd immunity based on Seroprevalence surveys. Letting the virus circulate unchecked means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death. Although older people are vulnerable, the pandemic has taken people of all age groups into its fold.
Allowing a dangerous virus that no one fully understands to run free is simply unethical. It’s not an option. There are many things that the states can do and are doing to control transmission and save lives.
Is shutting down the city an option?
Beyond public health is public policy. This virus transmits mainly between close contacts and causes outbreaks that can be controlled by implementing targeted measures such as: Prevent amplifying events; Protect the vulnerable; Empower; Educate; Engage communities and persist with the same tools that have been advocated since day one: Find, isolate, test and care for cases, and trace and quarantine.
In the past, Odisha has had no choice but to issue stay-at-home orders and other measures. The authorities utilised that time to develop plans, train health workers, put supplies in place, increase testing capacity, reduce testing time and improved patient care.
There should be targeted interventions where and when needed, based on the local situation rather than a lockdown. It has been done before and can be done again.
Instead of having Ghost Cities, we should shut down activities that encourage crowd gathering, all non-essential services and other public places on weekends and during the weekdays from 6 pm to 6 am then 9 pm to 5 am.
Bhubaneswar city plan is a boon
Amidst all the difficulties, one of the main reasons that Bhubaneswar and its people were able to tide over the first wave rather unscathed is the state capital’s Grid-Based Neighbourhood Planning of 1948. It actually ensured that people were self-sufficient in their respective environments with local shops and playgrounds catering to the needs of the people.
The pandemic is not over yet. Bhubaneswar must look at more innovative projects for reshaping public spaces in terms of mobility and sanitation.
Every crisis brings solutions with it, so has COVID-19. While dealing with this crisis, we must also look at innovation using urban planning tools to carve better cities.