State shutdowns are inevitable, but they must be used to augment the health system
Several States have done the inevitable, going into a strict lockdown for a fortnight to arrest India’s calamitous descent into COVID-19 hell since mid-March. The horror of sweeping infections, severe disease and staggering death rates has made a lockdown a popular measure, unlike last year’s imposition on an ill-prepared nation. Public acceptance of restrictions comes with the realisation that the threat to life from a mutating virus has aggravated manifold, although the spread of the scourge, from about 9,000 new daily cases in early February this year to over 4,00,000 in May, was brought about mainly by wrong messaging, massive political rallies and large religious events. After having been failed, what people now look forward to are measures that draw insights not from crude policing, but public health research. Unlike in 2020, the evidence is also stronger: WHO explains that SARS-CoV-2 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets and aerosols produced when people cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe, are within one metre of each other and also in crowded, poorly ventilated settings. Contact with contaminated surfaces poses another risk. Insistence on wearing good masks, distancing and a prohibition on risky gatherings, such as in restaurants, malls, religious sites, auditoria and on public transport are, therefore, essential. It is welcome that lessons have been learnt, and people were given time to prepare this time. Moreover, rather than shut out employment and services completely, home delivery services and some vending have been permitted. Tamil Nadu, which has commendably announced a relief of ₹4,000 for COVID-19, part of it to be disbursed during the lockdown, should avoid big gatherings at ration shops, opting instead for e-payments or doorstep disbursement. States should prevent crowding at shops open for limited hours by allowing door deliveries of all consumer goods and not just food, using online services. Travel for emergencies must be facilitated without harassment.
For an exhausted medical community, staggering under the weight of over 37 lakh active COVID-19 cases and a severe shortage of medical oxygen and drugs, the pause in activity comes as a life saver. The lockdown window can help it manage existing patients while governments augment critical supplies; a slowing infection curve will give everyone breathing space in coming weeks, although the heart-rending death rate may take time to decline due to the lag effect. A drop in the vaccination rate poses a serious challenge, and it is incumbent on the Centre to arrange for vaccine imports or augment domestic production to scale it up. Testing access must also be dramatically increased by May-end to assess the true scale of the pandemic. Without such progress, the lockdowns may yield only small gains, since the opportunity to build the systems to handle another surge would have been frittered away, again.