By Devendra Kothari,
On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most experts agree that a lockdown in India is necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19. As India enters the final phase of the lockdown which began a fortnight ago, hopes exist that things will be better.
The ending of the announced 21 days lockdown is approaching fast. No one should be under the impression of a complete lifting of the lockdown from April 15 onwards. India can expect a phased withdrawal of the lockdown. How to implement it is a million-dollar question? For this, the following points may be of some help:
Follow Cluster Approach
Consider the following facts: India’s current population is estimated at 1.37 billion with a population density of 425 persons per square kilometer in March 2020. Out of this around 350 million population was residing in large cities with 100,000 people and more. So far, overwhelming cases of COVID-19 were reported from urban areas, especially from the large cities. It is, therefore, important to identify clusters or hotspots. Every city administration head has all the information of clusters where the human density is large and crowded with filth and squalor. Immediate steps to isolate these areas should begin on a war footing. Immediate steps to isolate these areas should begin on a war footing.Authorities have already started identifying such clusters across in UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kerala, and Maharashtra. For example, a densely populated Ramganj area, a small community of Jaipur walled city, recorded the highest caseload anywhere in Rajasthan, and thus became the new epicenter of the outbreak in Rajasthan. Such hotspots need special attention. In the next few weeks, testing, tracing, isolation, and quarantine should be focussed on these hotspots. After the 21-day lockdown is over, the infected clusters can continue with restrictions while other parts of the country/city should be allowed to return to normalcy. This will not only contain the virus in the hotspots but also allow economic recovery.
Use minimum labour force and develop a new work culture
India needs to be in fighting mode until people get vaccinated while having minimal casualties. The Government should come out with a disaster management plan for discussion in public well before the lockdown is lifted on 15th April. The endeavor should be to have a minimum workforce on the ground at a time. My view is that one-third of the workforce can perform all the activities of an organization or farm or mines. A rotation system may be developed, and work from home should be encouraged. All places of mass gathering and congregation may continue to remain shut for some more time.
Encourage Communal Harmony
If someone is disturbing the social/communal harmony or creating obstacles against state efforts to control the virus, they must be immediately punished in public under the relevant sections of the IPC. In addition, as India has been battling the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, at the same time the government has to contend with growing communal polarization. It would be a significant move by GOI if all controversial issues like CAA, NPR and NCR are put in the cold storage for one year or so. And our PM Modi can take such a brave step in the national interest.
Enhance Health Spending
Doctors in hospitals across India said the lack of proper protective equipment available for medical staff, including basic masks, meant that patients presenting with coronavirus symptoms were being turned away. Further, India is not well equipped with testing. This is where much work is needed and India is behind. The number of tests performed has to escalate and the return of results has to be prompt. One also needs to pay attention to disease surveillance, monitor respiratory illness cases across the country look at spikes in insurance claims due to such illnesses in the hotspot metro areas and watch out for emerging hotspots and outbreaks. We cannot fight this war blindfolded. For the future, set up disease surveillance, testing, contact tracing, create a high alert pandemic response team. We need to build public health forces and trained professionals across the country. Trust and invest in science. India has to increase the health budget. India’s public expenditure on health now stands at 1.28 percent of the GDP but even then, it is way lower than the average expenditure by countries clubbed as among the “poorest”. More embarrassingly, the country’s public health expenditure is lower when compared with other South-East Asian countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bhutan. It is interesting to note that the government’s own National Health Policy 2017 envisages increasing the health budget to 2.5 percent. We hope to see some action around this in the current situation.
Strengthen Centre-State Partnership
Finally, we have to recognize that Central government alone can’t fight corona alone. Close cooperation of states is urgently needed. This crisis is an extraordinary situation that required extraordinary coordination. It is, therefore, increased coordination between states and the Centre, and among political parties, it is essential. Further, all states haven’t seen the same incidence of positive cases. Moreover, there are significant regional differences in economic structure. Therefore, it’s best if states are given leeway to tailor an exit plan according to the local context.
In sum, the success of Janata curfew’ demonstrated that people are willing to abide by government advisories and especially the appeal made by the Prime Minister. It is hoped that PM Modi will announce such an exit plan which will not only help to rid of coronavirus but also address the problems of the poor people.