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Book Excerpt: India’s Unlearnt Lessons From The Great Shutdown 

Revisiting Covid Lockdown

Book Excerpt: India’s Unlearnt Lessons From The Great Shutdown 

The second wave of 2021 showed that India had wasted its lockdown period and the hardships that came with it, because it was no better prepared, or prepared to any degree, for the pandemic.

Migrant workers and their families walking home after the lockdown on March 24, 2020
Migrant workers and their families walking home after the lockdown on March 24, 2020 Suresh K Pandey/Outlook

India went into lockdown on March 25, 2020, after less than four hours’ notice to its residents. That day, the country’s total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 562, and nine had died of the disease, said a WHO situation report. The disease was at the local transmission stage, which, according to the WHO definition, meant the source of infection was within the reporting location. A day earlier, in a speech at 8 p.m. on 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a twenty-one-day lockdown, which led to some of the worst horrors in the lives of the poorest of the population.

In numbers, the COVID-19 infection and the resultant deaths probably did not look high enough to warrant drastic action, but by then, some states and cities had already gone ahead and announced some form of lockdown. And the Union government was understandably under pressure to contain the spread, which it thought could be best done through a nationwide lockdown. The Prime Minister quoted WHO to say that a person infected with coronavirus could transmit it to hundreds of people within the span of a week to ten days. ‘It took sixty-seven days for the count of people infected with corona to reach the first one lakh [100,000] all over the world. After this, it took only eleven days for another one lakh people to get infected. What is even more alarming is that it took only four days for this number to go from two lakh [200,000] to three lakh [300,000] infections. You can imagine how rapidly coronavirus spreads. And once it begins to spread, it is very difficult to contain,’ Modi said in his 24 March speech while justifying the need to impose the lockdown.

Modi marvelled at the success of his 22 March curfew, and said, ‘Every Indian made janata curfew a success. Through a single day of janata curfew, India proved that when the nation is facing a crisis, when humanity is facing a crisis, every Indian comes together to overcome it. All of you deserve praise for ensuring the success of janata curfew.’ Each time the Modi government placed a restriction on its people to contain COVID-19, the Prime Minister made it sound as if it was a people’s decision or a matter of choice. Keeping in mind the advice of health-sector experts and the experiences of other countries, ‘the nation is about to take a very important decision,’ he said. ‘From midnight today, the entire country, please listen carefully, the entire country shall go under complete lockdown. In order to protect the country, and each of its citizens, from midnight tonight, a complete ban is being imposed on people from stepping out of their homes.’ The lockdown, the Prime Minister said, was a critical step in ‘the decisive fight against the corona pandemic.’
On the first of India’s lockdown on 25 March, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO, at around 10 p.m. India time, raised a pertinent point: whether lockdowns were successful would depend on what countries did while they were in place. ‘To slow the spread of COVID-19, many countries have introduced unprecedented measures, at significant social and economic cost —closing schools and businesses, cancelling sporting events and asking people to stay home and stay safe. We understand that these countries are now trying to assess when and how they will be able to ease these measures,’ he said in his opening remarks to a media briefing.

Migrant workers on Agra Expressway | Credit: Suresh K Pandey/Outlook
Migrant workers on Agra Expressway | Credit: Suresh K Pandey/Outlook

The answer, he said, depended on what countries did while such population-wide measures were in place. ‘Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems. But on their own, these measures will not extinguish epidemics. The point of these actions is to enable the more precise and targeted measures that are needed to stop transmission and save lives. We call on all countries who have introduced so-called “lockdown” measures to use this time to attack the virus.’ As the second wave of 2021 showed, however, India had wasted its lockdown period and the hardships that came with it, because it was no better prepared, or prepared to any degree, for the pandemic.
There was a realisation even in the government that shutting down everything could mean disaster for the economy. ‘There is no doubt the nation will have to pay an economic cost for this lockdown. However, at this moment, my utmost priority, and that of the Government of India, state and local governments, is to protect the life of every Indian. Hence, it is my plea and prayer to you to continue to remain wherever you are right now in the country,’ said the Prime Minister in his 24 March 2020 address.

The initial assessment was that a twenty-one-day lockdown would be sufficient, or at least that was what Modi told the people in the historic broadcast. He quoted health experts as advising that a period of at least twenty-one days was critical to break the infection cycle of COVID-19, though the decision in itself was based on pressure from the states that had already shut down or on the experience of other countries. ‘In the last two days, several parts of the country have been put under lockdown. These efforts by state governments should be taken very seriously,’ said the Prime Minister.

For some seventy-five districts, including those in the national capital, Delhi, the lockdown began earlier, on 22 March itself. According to an MHA status report dated 31 March 2020, submitted to the Supreme Court, most states and Union territories had invoked the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, Criminal Procedure Code and the Disaster Management Act, 2005 by 24 March to implement complete or partial lockdown orders.5 ‘While the above-mentioned steps were in the right direction, lack of uniformity in the measures adopted as well as in their implementation was not found to fully service the objective of containing the spread of the virus,’ said the report. This was cited as the reason for the New Delhi-based National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) invoking powers under section 6(2) of the Disaster Management Act to issue directions to all Union and state government departments and authorities. The Union Home Secretary was made chairperson of the National Executive Committee, which started issuing orders for effective implementation of the lockdown measures. But the Union government itself abrogated this strategy in 2021 when a deadlier wave gripped the country.

(Excerpted from The Great Shutdown: A Story of Two Indian Summers by Jyoti Mukul, with permission from HarperCollins India. Jyoti Mukul is a policy analyst, a former journalist and a commentator on the Indian economy, transport and infrastructure sectors.)

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