It’s10 days since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the sudden 21-day countrywide lockdown with his trademark “…aajraatbarahbaje se …” declaration at 8 o’clock in the night. Much has happened in this time. The COVID-19 pandemic has now infected over 1.1 million people across the planet and over 51,000 people have died. In India, confirmed cases have risen steeply from 536 on March 24, to 2,567 on April 3, while deaths have climbed up from 10 to 72.
The question uppermost in people’s minds is this: has the lockdown worked? Has it prevented or at least slowed down the spread of COVID-19? This is a crucial, life and death issue for millions of Indians, bombarded as they are with apocalyptic news every day of how country after country is brought to its knees by the raging disease, one of the most contagious ones to strike the world in a long time. This is equally important because the lockdown has meant an unprecedented loss of earnings to a large part of the population, depriving them even of daily food, and forcing them to confront a dark future.
As shown in the chart below, derived from the Health Ministry and Johns Hopkins University data, the first case of COVID was confirmed in India on January 30. After 53 days, on March 24, the tally stood at 536 confirmed cases. In the same period, the number of people dying because of the disease increased from zero on January 30, to 10 on March 24.
The disease was spreading, but slowly. This was a long period of time -- 53 days. A time when globally, confirmed cases exploded from just 8,234 to a staggering 4,18,045. The number of deaths spurted from a mere 171 to 18,625. Clearly, the pandemic was spreading and was bound to hit India with full force.
But the Modi government was either blissfully unaware or, more likely, had convinced itself that for some mystical reason, India will escape the onslaught. First, it ordered screening of foreign flights from certain countries that had become hotspots. Then several days later, it ordered screening of passengers from all international flights. It sent letters to state governments asking them to be on their toes. It got some of the testing facilities in shape. No doubt, behind closed doors all kinds of meetings would have taken place. But on the ground, in the real world, nothing much was happening.
PM Takes Charge – Leaking Lockdown
It was only on March 19, that the PM addressed the country and for the first time announced the policy of social distancing as a means of fighting COVID-19. Of course, he placed the whole onus on the people themselves, exhorting them to exercise resolve and restraint. He also praised the health personnel, and diverse others who were helping fight the disease.
Then, on March 24, he announced the lockdown. Much has been written on this already, but it needs repetition that there was no preparation for the mind-boggling implications – loss of earnings, loss of standing crops, lack of food and daily essentials, plight of migrant workers suddenly rendered jobless and homeless, far from their homes, and so on.
So, how has the disease progressed since this infamous lockdown – unique in its scale and nature even when an estimated 4.5 billion people are under various kinds of restrictions across the globe – began?
As the chart above shows, the number of confirmed cases has zoomed nearly five times in the 10 days since the lockdown started. On March 24, there were 536 cases which rose to 2,567 on April 3. The number of people dying because of it increased seven times -- from 10 to 72.
This should not be taken to mean that the lockdown has utterly failed, as enforced isolation in homes would surely cut down the chances of wider transmission. Nobody can say what would have happened if there was no lockdown. Maybe the cases and deaths would have been higher. So, it is not justified to conclude that it has completely failed.
However, the claim that it would break the chain of transmission and help vanquish the disease is also refuted by the current data. Clearly, it is spreading more rapidly than before, the numbers are larger, and the spread is geographically wider.
Also, the ill thought-out decision, without any preparation, lead to massive breakdown of the lockdown. It was not justignorance about the existence of migrant workers. That was the most visible sign. But, in poorer sections of society, with cramped houses, with incomes snatched away suddenly, mingling among people may have lessened a bit, but didn’t cease altogether.
Farmers had to continue harvesting, after the government exempted agricultural operations after a few days – another sign of fire-fighting. Religious congregations, which were continuing untrammeled (Muslim and Hindu) till March 24, left many stranded. People continued to evade screening, or even escaped quarantine. The lockdown was a leaking bucket. Its effect can perhaps never be scientifically assessed because there are a million ways in which it will be broken.
Testing and Medical Resource Building
Experts agree that a lockdown is not a brahmastra that will defeat the enemy COVID-19, as some mythologically inclined Indians believe. Neither will clanging of bells, blowing of shankhsand lighting of diyas – but that’s another story. At the most, a lockdown could have delayed the explosive growth that was expected. But a comparison with other countries shows that the spread of COVID-19 in India under lockdown – albeit a leaking one – is still following the same trajectory as many developing countries, and in all likelihood, the spread is going to increase in the days to come.
This period of relative calm before the deadly storm could have been better utilised to increase preparations. The Indian government has only recently ordered testing kits and masks – mainly for health personnel. Only about 66,000 tests have been done till date, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research. These, too, are a result of the policy of only contact testing. Surveillance and isolation are strong in some states, like Kerala and Maharashtra, but almost non-existent in many others.
Replenishment of supplies and putting supply chains in place – whether of medical equipment or food – is still work in progress. Deployment of doctors and nurses and para-medical staff is only addressed to the extent of cancelling leaves. There is no training programme to ready an army of volunteers who could screen, or test when the explosion comes.
In fact, barring a few states, the people are just being asked to support by spiritual means. They are actually being lulled – or perhaps misled – into thinking that somebody is on the job. Or maybe, a higher power will sort it out.
That’s a very dangerous mistake, which will cost India dearly, if and when COVID-19 gets out of the bottle. And if that happens, there is every likelihood of the lockdown getting extended, because there will be no other way out.