As India completes 43 days under Lockdown and stares at another two weeks, if not an interminable extension, the time has come to ask the question: could the entire COVID-19 situation, including the lockdown, have been better handled? Let us consider the facts.
India, according to government’s own admission in the Parliament, was in regular consultations with the World Health Organization (WHO) since January 7th/8th, 2020 about the evolving pandemic. On January 23, China declared a lockdown in Wuhan -- public transportation in two of Wuhan's neighboring prefecture-level cities, Huanggang and Ezhou, was also shut. A total of 12 other county to prefecture-level cities in Hubei province, including Huangshi, Jingzhou, Yichang, Xiaogan, Jingmen, Suizhou, Xianning, Qianjiang, Xiantao, Shiyan, Tianmen and Enshi, were placed under travel restrictions by the end of January 24. More than 50 million people were affected by the restrictions.
On January 30, India reported its first case of COVID-19, a student who had returned from Wuhan. On January 31, Air India evacuated the first batch of Indian students and professionals from the epicenter of the pandemic in China. It is surprising that the evacuees, who were subsequently quarantined, were not questioned extensively about what had happened in Wuhan in those 45 days between the first reported case and their departure. Many of those evacuated were Medical Students.
India’s strategic doctrine talks about a two-front situation. It is, therefore, incredible that our external intelligence agency was either not attentive to the emerging situation in China or the government was not paying heed to its inputs. Either way, this warrants an examination of what was RAW’s prognosis about the Wuhan catastrophe.
It was only 43 days later, on March 14, that Government of India chose to declare the virus as a notified disaster. A day earlier, government had informed the Lok Sabha that there were only 73 cases in India. It was also emphatic that there was no medical emergency in India. In the intervening six weeks, between the first case manifesting itself and the disaster being notified, US President Donald Trump came, saw and was feted, Delhi was convulsed by horrific communal riots and the operation to topple the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh was well underway. By the time Janta Curfew was announced, the number of cases had shot up to 341 with 7 fatalities.
The government, in a letter to the states on March 29, stated that the Bureau of Immigration had shared the details of more than 15 lakh passengers who had come to India between January 18 and March 23, 2020, and urged the states to keep them under close surveillance. The letter further claimed that the Central government had started screening all incoming passengers from January 15. This claim, at best, is specious and at worst, a belated cover up. Myriad number of people, who came back from abroad as late as early March, anecdotally recall that there was no screening and even if it was there, it was at best cursory. It raises an obvious query, that if the claimed screening had infact taken place robustly, had people been tested aggressively when they came in, and the positive cases immediately quarantined, would we still have required such a pervasive lockdown.
We have to ask: what was the government doing in those 51 days between the Wuhan evacuation and the announcement of the lockdown. Could civic measures like physical distancing, promoted earlier, coupled with smart containment zones, have contained the situation better rather than locking down 1.4 billion people? It may be noteworthy to point out that even at the height of the lockdown in China, only 48 cities were impacted and many of them not as severely as the whole of India.
On March 23, the lockdown was put into effect at a mere four hours’ notice. It led to one of the worst exodus of poor migrants from Indian cities. Some elderly people, who witnessed the partition of 1947, said the situation was somewhat similar, sans, of course, the brutality. The obvious question is why the lockdown was not announced the day the government notified it as a disaster, and that was three days after WHO declared it as a Pandemic. Why lock down the entire country at four hours’ notice? Given that neither the number of infections nor the fatalities were alarming; did it warrant such a draconian response?
Has the Lockdown achieved its objective? A lockdown only serves two purposes: it contains the spread of the virus by limiting human to human contact and allows the medical infrastructure to come up to speed. India had conducted 5,79,957 tests as of April 26. If India is conducting on an average 39,000 tests a day, by May 1st it should have conducted 7,74,957 tests. India’s testing yield at 4% is among the lowest in the world. India went from 1 to 6,600 cases in 70 days; 6,600 to 13,200 cases in 7 days; 26,400 to 33,000 cases in a mere 4 days; 19,800 to 26,400 in 5 days and 20,000 to 30,000 cases in a mere 6 days even at such abysmal levels of testing. The number of positive cases in India stands at 35,365. Ironically, on May 1, the day Tamil Nadu reported its worst spike in cases, the Chennai Municipal Corporation revealed that 98% of the novel Coronavirus cases in the city are asymptomatic. A similar thing was said by the Government of Delhi that 80% of the cases tested on a particular day were found to be asymptomatic. It raises a logical presumption that while the virus is out there, doing its work, we are aimlessly drifting from one lockdown to another.
On the question of beefing up the medical infrastructure, as of April 30, according to a news report, India had only two days of testing kits left when it ostensibly received the first unspecified tranche of an order of 7 lakh kits. The situation with Personal Protection Equipment, Ventilators and other critical care equipment is also opaque.
An already struggling economy has been knocked of its haunches. In all probability, the GDP would be in negative territory. Millions of small businesses have been wiped out and the specter of mass unemployment stares us in the face. By the government’s own estimates, if the lockdown were to continue beyond Mid-May, the drop in GDP would be 8-10%. While the lockdown does not seem to have flattened the curve, it has defiantly flattened the economy.
Roman Emperors loved to put up spectacles. These display's, which assaulted the senses and ratcheted up emotions, provided the masses a temporary escape from their wretched existence. This is what we have today: an abject spectacle of governance.
(The writer is a Lawyer, MP and Former Union Minister of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India. Views expressed are personal.)