Addressing a video conference with Chief Ministers on 27 April, a week before the end of the second phase of lockdown, Prime Minister Modi told them that the danger of the virus was far from over and “constant vigilance is of paramount importance”. More than a month has elapsed since India resorted to lockdown. The strategy has yielded “positive results” in the words of the PM to the extent that it has saved thousands of people from contracting COVID-19 infection.
In the midst of the second phase of the lockdown, some States have already expressed the need to continue it further as conditions are not normal. Goa, Odisha and Meghalaya, where COVID-19 attack is less severe than in most other places, are ready to face the inconveniences of the lockdown so that the fight against the pandemic is not abandoned till we are free of the disease. Some States like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are in favour of following the decision of the Union Government – the safest option. On the whole, no State Government presently seems to be keen on lifting the lockdown.
Cautious approach of the Chief Ministers is itself a big help to the PM to chalk out a plan for gradual removal of restrictions depending on local conditions. As a responsibility of the government, lifting of lockdown is more serious than its introduction and involves a thorough study of the status of the epidemic and factors conducive to its spread and efficacy of control measures. Return of a virus is always more virulent than its first entry. We have to take into account global status of the virus also while taking national decision.
Lockdown was commenced in India on this 24 March certainly not as a panic response at the very first case and also not as a late response when situation is out of control. First case was noticed on 30 January and steady escalation from 3 March. Initially, it was reported that even scientists considered lockdown as a “drastic public health measure” which could lead to “long-lasting adverse health outcomes.” Some sections were then in favour of “community and civil society led self-quarantine and self-monitoring” method as more sustainable and implementable strategy.
Lockdown was finally adopted after a thorough examination by experts and not as a unilateral political decision. At that time, some degree of lockdown was already in force in many counties where the pandemic also entered earlier.
Flattening the spread of the epidemic is the main purpose of the lockdown which gives time to health systems to cope up with the disease so that normal activities could be resumed. Reducing reproduction number below 1 (which is now 2 to 3) is necessary for control of the epidemic, and for this contact between symptomatic, asymptomatic, and pre-symptomatic patients with the rest of the population must be stopped. This is what lockdown aims to do. Common people misunderstand the objective of lockdown.
Each country may have its own version of lockdown. But, there are six major measures which include stopping of big events; closure of schools and colleges; self-isolation of symptomatic cases; household isolation; social distancing for all; and social distancing for 70+ age-group. The logic of lockdown may vary from country to country, but the basic reason is common to all which is physical contact between individuals to an undesirable extent which facilitates transmission of infections. Human beings being human beings prone to social living and subject to virus attacks, isolation has to be legally enforced to fight infectious/contagious diseases.
As one month of lockdown is already completed, it will be useful to review how it has worked and what has been achieved. A protracted pandemic like COVID-19 has already proved that soft handling will not work and stern determined measures are needed. It implies that people will have to bear the burden of inconveniences to free themselves and posterity from the deadly disease.
First of all, the whole world is presently dependent on non-medical ways of fighting the pandemic to prevent its escalation since no specific vaccine is made. It brings people’s understanding and willing cooperation into focus. Lockdown is a strategy that needs the support of the people. It is aimed at the affected and the unaffected unlike quarantine which is isolation of the affected and people suspected to be affected.
The practice of quarantine began in 14th century Europe to protect coastal cities from Plague. Ships arriving from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. Frequent outbreak of Yellow Fever led to the Federal Quarantine legislation in the US in 1878 and paved way for federal action in quarantine matters which were dealt with by States. Under Public Health Service Act of 1944, prevention and transmission of communicable diseases from foreign countries became the responsibility of federal government in USA.
Pandemic diseases have to be centrally dealt with even in federal systems. To introduce questions of State rights and autonomy sounds premature politics. States are to be consulted to ascertain local situations and determine implementation techniques. Strategies like lockdown have to be centrally decided to be effective. There are grades and degrees of infection and therefore variations in lockdown details, but decision must be national. Inter-State coordination committees may be set up for purposeful joint action.
Decentralised administrative machinery well established in the country is a great boon in organising COVID-19 fight and implementing lockdown. The Health Department has constituted State and district level committees to audit causes of death. In Odisha, Sarpanchs are vested with powers of a magistrate to fight coronavirus and are asked to ensure strict compliance of lockdown rules, and other precautionary practices like wearing masks, hand washing, social distancing, zero tolerance to spitting in public places, etc.
There are over 2.6 lakh village panchayats in India with over 30 lakh representatives, one-third of whom are women. There are about 5,000 urban local bodies. Besides these official bodies, thousands of voluntary organisations and Resident Welfare Associations with elected members are functioning. They are all alive and active, and concerned people do have trust in them. Panchayat presidents command some respect in their villages. In times of crisis like the present wave of pandemic, these institutions may be used to promote people’s cooperation which is the kingpin in the success of lockdown measures.
A milder form of lockdown named “Stay at home order” is adopted in many States in the US. Work from home has become common in India wherever possible as a support system to lockdown.
India’s lockdown is said to be one of the most severe forms that could adversely affect its economy and is difficult to follow. There are several instances of violations, but not all are due to hardships in observing lockdown. Photographs of people crowding in markets, moving around without masks, and gathering in large numbers for some festival show a mixture of ignorance and a common tendency to disregard rules and regulations particularly on roads.
Local bodies and associations must gear up to fight lockdown panic to defeat the pandemic.