Lockdown and beyond: On India’s response to coronavirus
India has responded to the spectre of large-scale transmission of the novel coronavirus and the unprecedented public health catastrophe it may bring by ordering a full national lockdown. The goal is to flatten the transmission curve and help a frayed health system cope with a large number of cases. Physical distancing of people, ensured through a suspension of rail and inter-State bus services, closure of public places, cessation of all non-essential activity and street-level monitoring, is the first order priority during a pandemic and the lockdown can ensure that. The options being used by States to enforce this are Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 and the Indian Penal Code. What must follow is the galvanising of governmental machinery to address essential requirements. This was certainly not in evidence on Sunday during the janata curfew, which saw near-total compliance, but culminated in noisy public celebrations. It was also marked by a last-minute scramble among migrant labour stuffing themselves into trains to return home ahead of the shutdown. Many hundreds more remained stranded in several cities, crowding termini, as train services were withdrawn. These hapless people, who must largely fend for themselves, have been potentially exposed to the pathogen; some may have unwittingly infected others. The week-long lockdown ahead cannot become a similar exercise in chaos, confusion and misery. As a war-like moment in the country’s history, it calls for massive preparation with all hands on deck to mitigate the impact on people, and to formulate a public health response for the period beyond the shutdown.
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Governments have a duty to ensure that the most vulnerable classes, economically and socially, including the elderly, have access to essential articles including medicines, close to where they live. It should not be difficult to provide to them a package of staples to last a week using civil supplies departments, civic workers, and non-governmental organisations. Considering that about 37% of households depend on casual labour as their major source of income for rural and urban India, and nearly 55% have tenuous regular employment, as per Periodic Labour Force Survey data for 2017-18, it is essential for governments to ensure that they get subsistence wages for as long as restrictions last. Some States have already moved in that direction. Funds transfers during the containment phase of the pandemic, followed by a stimulus to sustain employment are necessary. But a bigger challenge stares India in the face: can it get a universally accessible testing system in place to prevent transmission when the lockdown is lifted? China, South Korea and Singapore, as WHO points out, adopted a strict shutdown, but used the breather to get a grip on infections by testing at the population level. This is the hard work that lies ahead, and it will test the mettle of India’s national and State governments.
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