What a mess we have made. All of our own making. Each one of us has at some point been derelict. Avoided a mask, didn’t observe social distance or worse, didn’t report or test when we had mild Covid symptoms. So, we are all at fault for where we are today. We were so happy and proud thinking we had conquered the Everest of Covid that we did what we do best, relax, go bindaas and ignore all pleas and rules. It was party time; from Diwali to Holi we had a ball, the Great Indian Wedding was back, flights to Goa, Mauritius and the Gulf were packed. A lakh watched India play England in Ahmedabad. Tens of lakhs went to the Kumbh and thousands packed political rallies as the Election Commission set up the longest Bengal election possible.
While we did all this, most of Europe and the US was in lockdown and trying to get vaccinated. They had second or third waves on, but we didn’t want to watch or learn from what was happening elsewhere. After all, we know best. So instead of ramping up our health facilities; funding, procuring and distributing vaccines; driving genome sequencing; continuing the campaign for masks and distance; we played politics, which we are very good at. If the political machinery of this country had spent as much time, money and effort in planning and preparing for a second wave, would we be where we are today?
Even now, we had the dichotomy of traders in Delhi asking for a lockdown and the government doing its best to avoid it. Strange that people whose life is about making money were happy to shut shop and the governments that are meant to take hard decisions were shying away from it. Why is that?
The Centre, after issuing orders late last year opening everything (including enclosed spaces like cinemas hall and malls!), washed its hands of Covid and said the states have to handle it. The problem for the states is that their money comes from GST (plus VAT of petroleum etc). If they have to do a lockdown, they lose their source of revenue, if they lose that they don’t have the funds to fight the virus or do much else. Last year the centre pulled the plug of GST support since it was concerned about its finances. So financially strapped states are very shy of going for a lockdown.
Take Goa – the government has not called a lockdown even though it is reporting almost 1,000 cases day (with a seven-day average positivity rate of 24%, one of the highest in the country) because tourism is its biggest source of revenue and the state needs GST. There isn’t even a basic check like a rapid Covid test on people visiting the state.
The fact is that the virus is out of control and the only solution for many states is to have a total lockdown — either throughout the state like in Maharashtra and Delhi, or in districts where the pandemic is out of control, to break the chain. UP has announced a lockdown in five key cities including Lucknow and Varanasi. It is bizarre that governments have resorted to weekend lockdowns; they are meaningless. Even Delhi’s six-day shutdown will not suffice. Given that the incubation can be more than seven days, it is unlikely to provide the break Delhi needs. Figures from Maharashtra, which has been in a lockdown for five days, show little abatement as yet. Which is why they have gone for a two-week lockdown.
There are many economic arguments against lockdowns. They were valid when daily Covid positive numbers were less than 5,000 to 10,000 (depending on the size of the state). When the virus is out of control, as they are now, there is no other option. With positivity rates raging and the health system saturated, there no beds, no medicines, no oxygen and the staff is exhausted.
That is most critical. Health workers are stretched to the limit. There has to be some means of reducing their burden in the immediate term before they burn out. This not a repeat of September last year. Today India has three times the number of cases on the peak day last year. In Maharashtra the daily cases have been above last year’s peak for a month. Yet the staff of these hospitals have not been augmented. The wave has taken an enormous toll on them, and it is unsustainable; they are the last defence against our system being completely overwhelmed. They need a break.
Secondly, commandeering medical facilities for Covid is to deny people with many other ailments medical treatment, especially emergency treatment. Everyone recognizes that TB control has gone out of hand during this virus period.
Thirdly, let us recognize, as many doctors have pointed out, that the damage done by Covid to people can and does have long term consequences, including brain fogging and other neurological problems, lung damage. With the young now bearing much of the Covid attack, can we afford to have them so damaged and for how long? What is the economic cost of this? Deaths seem to have been low so far but how many more have to die before it has an economic impact?
Finally, we know we are amongst the most undisciplined people in the world. Look at the way we drive, ignoring all rules. To expect Indians to mask up, keep social distance are what dreams are made of. If we don’t enforce separation through a lockdown, we will allow the new mutations to rage. Current evidence shows that these mutations spread much faster than the original.
Two weeks will not end the pandemic but will provide states where the growth rates are rocketing some reprieve. It will give both the central and state governments some time to rework their priorities and focus on long-term control. Just like the government has claimed that last year’s lockdown gave them time to get PPE suits, masks and ramp up hospital facilities, another lockdown provides another opportunity to course correct.
It’s not ideal and it is not a long-term solution in a poor country, but there is no other alternative.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.