The government of India’s call for complete lockdown on March 24 came as an expected surprise. Many believed that this was needed and coming, but no one thought that we had the will to do it. Recent studies show that the first wave of lockdown has been successful in averting the first wave, which could have infected close to a million.
India is, nevertheless, again at the crossroads with a more significant dilemma. Should the government continue to strictly enforce a lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus? Or should it worry about the economy and initiate steps for its revival?
Concerns have been raised over the last three weeks on the state of the marginalised migrant labourers; the disruption in food supply chains if the harvest is not timely; loss of market share in case India defaults on export commitments; stress on already down automobile and ancillary industries; to name a few. While nearly 130+ million citizens have willingly adhered to the lockdown till now, the success of the lockdown may be in jeopardy unless livelihoods are restored, and food is put on the table.
So far, the government has shown the intent and attempted to put in a robust strategic framework to ensure implementation was close to fool-proof. However, the much needed second phase of lockdown is going to be tricky. There is a fear that too much relaxation could erase the gains so far and too less may seem like an eyewash and push the economy in deeper reds.
There is a consensus that the continuation of lockdown is a necessary evil. The way infection is impacting developed economies across the Americas, and Europe is frightening and could be devastating if India reaches even 50% of those levels. Our health system is not equipped to handle such loads, and while a lot has been done to strengthen them in the last three weeks, it will not be enough.
We have already seen the impact a single religious gathering in Delhi is having in the surge of numbers across the country. It has shown that given the density of our urban centres and slums within them, a bit of slackness is enough to allow the disease to spread its wings. Spread of the disease to rural parts of the country could be further devastating, and make it more difficult to control the swell.
The government is planning a guarded approach and just inching toward the light at the end of the tunnel. The lockdown is being extended for another 20 days with a proposal to give relaxation to few areas in a week’s time in a bid to restore livelihoods wherever possible. At the same time, existing and new hot spots will go into stricter lockdowns. Country is being divided into zones and relaxations on lockdown will be planned based on performance in coming week. Last few days have seen some guidance coming for opening up of specific industries and more are expected in coming days for operationalising an integrated approach.
Will this strategy work or is it even implementable, only time will tell. Ultimately, the performance of PM Modi and his government’s reaction to the crisis will depend on how long the faith of 130+ million Indian’s lasts in them. This, in turn, will define the course of next few months and make or break India’s future.
(Himanshu Sikka is the Head of Health, Nutrition & WASH at IPE Global.)