The epochal COVID-19 pandemic seems to be returning with a vengeance, just when Indians were gloating, and the rest of the world awe-struck, at the sudden drop in COVID cases in the country. Alongside the feared second wave is the looming possibility of another lockdown and all the miseries that accompany it.
Can the Indian economy, society, and everything else that go with it, handle yet another shutdown? The spectre of a lockdown is almost unthinkable, especially at a time when the country is just about getting back on its feet after a period of unforgettable freeze.
A year ago, a large number of Indians under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advice desperately banged plates, spoons and whatever else they could lay their hands on to “ward off evil spirits” in the form of the coronavirus, much to the bemusement of realists.
Paying no heed to the “noise”, the COVID pandemic struck with full force nevertheless. It reached a nationwide peak of around 90,000 cases per day in September last, climbing up the global list before dramatically dropping below pandemic levels in the first week of February with around 11,000 cases daily.
However, by this time of ebb and flow, much of India was virtually wrung out – its recessive economy crashing to historic depths with a contraction of 23.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2021. An estimated 14 crore people lost their jobs during the lockdown. Nearly 50 lakh migrant workers found themselves stranded – out of jobs, far away from their homes and desperate to return at a time when there was no rail, road, or air traffic.
All of this due to an abrupt “total lockdown” declared on March 23 by the prime minister who gave people exactly four hours to adjust to the new benumbing reality.
The worry now is: are we heading back there?
The COVID cases are going up (nearly 39,726 cases as on March 18) and the spectre of a repeat pandemic is very much in the air, but the situation is not exactly the same. The world has moved some distance. It is a year older and probably wiser. A variety of vaccines has come up in record time and hopefully people, though complacent in recent months, will return strictly to the basic protocol – of maintaining social distance and masking themselves in public spaces.
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But expectation and reality seem far apart. With assembly elections in progress in four states and an union territory, COVID appears to be the farthest in the minds of the thousands who gather for meetings and rallies.
Those wearing masks and social distancing are even being ridiculed, going by the accounts from masked travellers. Social events including weddings and religious gatherings are back like in pre-COVID times. The Kumbh festival with thousands in attendance is on in full swing in Haridwar, with no COVID protocols being followed, according to reports.
One would have expected long lines for vaccinations. Instead, the demand is low, erratic and in the first two months, a mere seven per cent of the targeted population has been vaccinated, says a report in IndiaSpend, a data-centric news portal. Many are hesitant to take the vaccine as they fear it will harm them. Others see a big conspiracy in the entire exercise and question the existence of COVID itself, despite the presence of the pandemic all around.
If the numbers continue to rise, would the government deign to impose a total lockdown again?
When the total lockdown was imposed last March the intention was to “flatten the curve” – so that the rate of spread of the pandemic would slow down and give time for hospitals and the overall health infrastructure to get ready to treat the thousands who could arrive at the various hospitals. The results were mixed, with some fortunate to get treated on time while others were left to languish and even die due to delays in treatment.
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At its peak in September, over 1,200 died on an average daily. The only silver lining, if one could call it that, was India’s case fatality rate (CFR) at 1.5 per cent, the least in the world. The US, in comparison, had CFR of 2.8 per cent and Mexico 10.3 per cent.
From March to September, despite the lockdown, the numbers continued to climb exponentially across the country. Just when world health authorities expected India to beat the United States to the number one position, the figures started dropping from around October and subsequently fell dramatically. From a peak of around 90,000 cases, it came down to around 11,000 cases by February this year.
It is not clear what role the lockdown played in the rise and fall of the pandemic. For example, at its height in September, the lockdown was still severe and as the government gradually started easing it, the numbers actually came down – confounding anyone who would have attempted to credit the lockdown alone with the fall in cases.
By the end of December last year and February this year, it seemed that the pandemic had subsided completely with a variety of possible reasons why this may have happened – from genetic factors, naturally occurring immune response to herd immunity. The economy started to look up, sentiments brightened and it seemed that the pandemic was a painful memory best forgotten.
However, the last couple of weeks have shoved aside such happy conclusions. The pandemic appears to have its own diabolical logic and looks set to throttle the nation’s activities once again.
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Ideally, the lessons learnt from last year’s experience should come in handy, in addition to the vaccine. If the number of those vaccinated goes up it could work like a circuit-breaker. The only spoiler is the reported presence of virus variants that can potentially challenge the efficacy of the existing vaccines.
Maintaining social distance, wearing masks and limiting people in restaurants, theatres and other public spaces should help. A modelling study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A showed that wearing masks brought down the virus’s reproductive rate (RO) to less than one, meaning it wouldn’t be able to spread.
Some states like Punjab have already announced limited restrictions like night curfews. There are the imponderables as well. For example, the hundreds of farmers staging protests over 100 days on the borders of Delhi don’t seem to have been hit by COVID while much smaller gatherings in schools and colleges have seen a spike in cases. The Manipal Institute of Technology is the latest high-profile educational institute affected by COVID.
If the current spike continues to climb, it would require something more ingenious than a simplistic reliance on a total shutdown (with all its attendant difficulties) to douse the pandemic. That much seems clear.