India anticipates second COVID wave on anniversary of first lockdown

On this day a year ago, life as we knew it changed after the COVID-19-induced lockdown came into effect. People were forced to stay at home, and work from home. What started as a 21-day lockdown stretched to two months, affecting businesses, rendering migrant labourers jobless and shifting offices to home. The Federal recaps how things changed and looks at the situation now

Representational photo: PTI (File)

A sigh of relief that people took after the coronavirus cases registered a fall and the government lifted restrictions while kicking off a COVID-19 vaccination drive seems to have been short-lived with the country experiencing yet another surge of cases in what is feared is the onset of a second wave of the pandemic.

The past week has seen the country recording fresh spike in infections, nearly four months after cases showed a slump. India, on Monday, reported yet another single-day spike of infections, logging in 46,951 fresh cases, the biggest jump since November 7, taking the tally to 1,16,46,081. Maharashtra alone accounted for 30,535 cases, more than 60 per cent of the new cases reported on Monday.

India now is the third-worst affected country after the US and Brazil.

Just around this time last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after calling a 24-hour ‘Janata Curfew’ on March 19, declared a 21-day lockdown across the country starting March 25, 2020, to break the chain of the pandemic. The virus had then had 500-plus people in its grip and had claimed 12 lives.

Related news: COVID 2.0: Can the country cope with another lockdown?

The announcement, which gave people barely four hours to stock up on essentials, triggered a mad rush in markets. The government ordered all public places, including shops, malls, factories, schools and places of worship, to be closed, while allowing only essential services to operate. All means of transport, including buses, trains and flights, were suspended and only personnel dealing with essential services were allowed to commute.

In the ensuing days, thousands of migrant workers were rendered jobless due to the shutdown of workplaces and factories. They were forced to travel thousands of kilometres by foot back to their home states. Most of them were forced to leave cities due to inability to pay rent and afford basic amenities like food, water and healthcare due job loss.

As all forms of transportation were suspended, many had no other option but to walk to their villages along with families and even pregnant wives, while others cycled all the way or hitched rides. While many made it home, several others perished en route either due to hunger and fatigue or were killed in road accidents. In one such shocking incident on May 8, 2020, 16 migrants were run over by a goods train while they were sleeping on the railway tracks in Aurangabad, exhausted after a long day of walking.

According to data revealed in Parliament on September 14, 2020, by the Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar, at least 10 million migrants had tried to return home after the lockdown. The minister, however, said there was no data on the number of migrants who died due to the exodus or were rendered unemployed due to the lockdown. India, according to the India Exclusion Report, has a migrant population of 139 million.

It was only in May that the Centre announced special Shramik trains for migrants and buses to ferry them to their homes.

On the professional front, the lockdown forced workspace to shift to homes and offices to operate through chats, mails and zoom calls, with managements wary of offices becoming possible hotspots of the infection.

IT giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon paved the way for others, after extending their WFH till June 2021.

In July, the Indian government extended the work from home for IT and BPO companies till December 31, from the earlier deadline of July 31. This was a landmark measure for the Information and Communications Technology sector in the country which employs 4.36 million people.

In a recent interview with Financial Express, Ashish Rathi, whole time director, HDFC Securities, said that despite the hiccups of network issues and communication gap (thanks to chats and not the spoken word), the WFH model helped raising productivity as it eliminated transport time and is more convenient for employees.

A survey by Australian research agency PaperGiant in November 2020 found that 70 per cent of respondents reported better job satisfaction during the lockdown than before.

However, with vaccines now in place, another survey by News19 and research company YouGov, conducted between December 29, 2020, and January 3, found that seven in 10 people said they would want to return to offices. The survey collected data from 1,015 urban residents.

Even though employers, encouraged by the availability of vaccines and slump in cases in the past few months, were thinking of shifting to a hybrid version of work culture, the new spike in infections may prompt many to reconsider. Maharashtra already has directed all private offices, except those related to health and essential services, to function at 50 per cent capacity.

Akin to the situation in 2020, many states, including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, have beefed up restrictions and imposed night curfews. While Maharashtra has announced night curfew in 10 worst-affected districts, Punjab has reinforced COVID guidelines in 11 districts while shutting all educational institutions except medical colleges till March 31. Tamil Nadu has shut school for classes 9,10,11, while Gujarat has banned any celebrations during Holi.

Related news: Widening infection-recovery gap, rising TPR hint at COVID-19 relapse

The Madhya Pradesh government has decided on a lockdown every Sunday in Indore, Bhopal and Jabalpur, three of its most-affected districts, after a hiatus of seven months while closing a shutdown of schools for Classes 1 to 8 till an unspecified period of time.

The Rajasthan government has announced night curfew in eight cities from Monday while making a COVID-19 negative report mandatory for people visiting the state.

The new emergence of shutdowns and restrictions is reminiscent of the time when the infection peaked in the country last year. It is only to be seen if the second wave will be a rerun of the events witnessed in 2020.

The only difference now is there are two vaccines in hand and a vaccination drive in progress under which 4.5 crore have been inoculated, as per government data.