National coronavirus lockdown: Where do we go from here?

Image Courtesy: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Following the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on the evening of March 24, the Government of India’s strategy for dealing with a potential stage 2 to stage 3 transition of the COVID-19 epidemic is now evident. They are hoping to break the transition using a full national curfew, curtailing mobility on a scale where even the Government is to shut down, except for a key few sectors.

The 21-day lockdown is likely to extend further, by at least a week, to 28 days. If they carry it off for 18 to 19 days then it may be extended for another week, since 28 days is often cited as a safer margin for quarantine. The official “Guidelines on the Measures to be Taken” (issued after the PM’s address) for the “containment of covid19 epidemic in the country”, does not in fact specify the duration of closure of public and private sector functioning, including that of the Government.

But curfew management is likely to be undemocratic in several states, in areas and localities. The violation of rights and its severity is dependent on the behaviour of police forces across different States. Scenes of police officers humiliating citizens in unacceptable and even violent ways have been seen for the last two days. The Telengana Chief Minister, with typical intemperateness, has spoken of shoot-at-sight orders for those not adhering to the lockdown. Much of this will be justified by terming it a national emergency.

The move is very likely to receive wide international support. It will be seen as the only option for a poor country with a huge population, and as a bold and decisive move on the part of the Prime Minister. The appeal by the World Health Organization, calling on India to take the lead, as in the case of small pox and polio eradication, and its timing, on the morning of March 24, suggests a strategic endorsement by the WHO.

Given long-term structural constraints in the health sector, and the near-complete inability of the Government to mobilise on the required scale in terms of testing, medical equipment, hospital readiness, and intensive care arrangements (though some attempts at a bare minimum are being made), a national lockdown is the only realistic option to manage this crisis.  But even this cannot work, as the WHO has often emphasised, without removing those infected from among the population, isolating them, and without appropriate roll-out of hospital care for those who fall ill and those whose condition may further deteriorate. However, the entire approach by medical care has been quite lackadaisical. Corporate India’s response also has been slow and halting, it has been content to let the Government take the lead and has been very non-proactive in engaging with it.

As is typical of the top-down disaster management strategy that is characteristic of the Central bureaucracy and government, dealing with the poor at large and those that are particularly vulnerable, has not been thought through beforehand. This is where Kerala presents such a striking contrast, followed in part by other State governments. Though even serious, specific action that is carefully worked out to deal with the situation for the vulnerable, has definite limits. Further, the constant moving of goal posts by the Central government and its dithering has made manoeuvring more difficult for the states. The well-being of the people now depends on their luck in terms of the state they live in, and in its current State government.

The most striking example of the above is that in the official guidelines, among the list of Government departments that should remain functional, Food and Civil Supplies is not once explicitly mentioned. Food and related supply chain establishments find mention in guidelines only for the private sector. Considerable disruption and confusion with respect to food supply may be expected over the next few days –  the alternative will be a pragmatic loosening of the lockdown on the ground, which will render it ineffectual. Neither option is a pleasant one, the worst is that both may occur.

Similarly, in the list of functioning government departments, Health does not surprisingly find a mention either, despite the PM’s exhortation that the only task before the states is now health. This also indicates the haste in the adoption of the current strategy, with many issues not having been considered even with minimum attention required.

Maintaining the supply of essential commodities and essential services is easier said than done. The workers involved in the entirety of such supply chains, their health and safety, while dealing with the hardships their families will face over three full weeks, as well as workers in sanitation, health, utilities like power, etc. who face similar, if not more serious issues, have to be reassured, provided incentives and kept at their posts. Else, the bulk of these services or supply chains will work extremely poorly or cease to function, both in the private and public sector. Such dysfunction will have serious consequences, though the proverbial fortitude and the general capacity for tolerance of hardship of the people of India may see the nation through the lockdown, but at considerable cost and suffering.

The following are some of the immediate demands/issues that need to be raised by democratic opinion:

  • Curfew must be administered in a democratic and lawful manner, respectful of citizens’ dignity, even as legal and administrative firmness is exercised. It is not an excuse to violate Constitutional rights and statements such as those of the CM of Telengana should be condemned.

  • Particular attention must be paid to the protection of front line workers in the medical, public health and sanitation sectors and others on the front lines of the anti-COVID-19 effort. Such protection must be made available on a war footing, as the curfew will only make it harder to ensure such supplies are delivered. The relevant government departments also need to work with at least a minimal functionality at all levels.

  • Central and State Food and Civil Supplies departments must be functional and not shut down.

  • The stock of grain lying with the Government must be entirely put at the disposal of relief to those hit by the lockdown, including labour, the petty self-employed, other sections of the informal sector and so on.

  • Government must ensure that the financial resources required for the adequate protection of those involved in essential services, and the supply of essential commodities, is made available. In the case of the private sector, reasonable norms for Government support as needed, must be worked out urgently.

  • The identification of positive cases, their quarantine and care, if they turn symptomatic, as necessary, including intensive care, needs to be ensured. This cannot be done without a functioning Health department and Guidelines must be revised to clear this needless ambiguity.

  • The Guidelines fall woefully short of indicating clearly how the bulk of the population is to manage during the 21 day curfew, and the necessary financial, administrative and logistical and material arrangements to ensure their basic minimum well-being. A full economic package of immediate relief measures for the curfew period needs to be urgently spelt out. While the burden will fall on the States in implementation, the Centre needs to spell out what resources will be made available.

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