The ongoing lockdown in India is turning into another demonetisation experience — a farce that is unlikely to produce the desired result, a tragedy likely to destroy the lives of millions of people and the economy, and an incident that has all the hall-marks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s style of functioning.
Signs of the failure of the lockdown are everywhere.
On Saturday morning (March 28), thousands of migrant labourers gathered on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border town of Ratanpur. After hours of protests, the government was forced to remove the barricades and allow thousands of displaced people to go back to their native places.
On Friday night, long queues of people were seen on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh and Delhi-Haryana borders, bringing alive the horrors of Partition. While hundreds of them appeared ready to walk back to their villages hundreds of miles away, several packed themselves as sardines in buses and trucks plying on the road. Similar scenes of mass migration are playing out across India.
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In the cities, hundreds of people are hitting relief camps everyday in search of food and shelter, turning the concept of social distancing on its head. These camps, where people are jostling for space, could soon turn into epicentres of the deadly virus.
The rationale behind the lockdown was to ensure the coronavirus doesn’t spread from one place to another. This could have been achieved only through strict curbs on movement of people and a complete ban on interaction outside home. But, millions are on the move, hundreds are gathering everyday for relief, potentially taking the infection to India’s remote villages and ghettos, where it would be impossible to trace, diagnose and treat.
You just can’t blame the millions on the roads and camps for not following government orders. In the absence of employment, income, food and shelter, they have absolutely no choice but to go back home, or scrounge for food and shelter. If, in the process, they carry the virus with them, so be it. For them, hunger is a bigger enemy at the moment than the coronavirus; the dread of being stranded away from family is a bigger concern than coming down with the illness.
On Friday, two persons were tested positive for the virus in a village on the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh border. The duo, a 65-year old man and his son, had travelled back home on a bike from Indore, after their employers shut shop and directed them to return home.
Both these men had no history of foreign travel or a history of contact with a patient who had tested positive. They have absolutely no idea where they picked up the virus. Two dangers are apparent from this incident: one, the transmission is now happening in the community; and two, the carriers may have spread across India.
Resetting the clock
The lockdown, like demonetisation, has created two Indias. One India is of the people with the privilege of a shelter, money and stockpiled food. This India has gone into hibernation, believing that their locked gates will keep the illness out. They are, of course, mistaken.
The other India is on the roads, desperately searching for food, and a way to get back home. This huge mass of people is likely to come in contact with infected people, stay out of reach of the medical staff screening potential patients and contribute to an explosion of cases. If that happens, the infection will continue to spread in spite of the lockdown, leading to a deluge of patients at hospitals.
If you think the lockdown can be lifted after 21 days in this scenario, you have obviously not read the horror stories from Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. In these countries restrictions were not restricted strictly in the initial days. As a result, in spite of locking down entire cities, the death rates are climbing and the number of patients is growing every day. Faced with a grim outlook, the lockdowns in these countries are now being extended.
India is entering the second week of a lockdown—in many states it was ordered much before Modi announced it—and still the country is on the move. In all likelihood, barring a miracle, the first few days of the lockdown have been completely wasted and India is staring at a long battle that may go on for several weeks.
The current trajectory of the disease is alarming. Globally, the cases have been doubling every 4-5 days. In India, 312 had tested positive till March 21. In six days the numbers have crossed 900, with 23 deaths, implying the graph is soaring. If the current trend continues and the restrictions don’t work, India may have around 7000 cases by April 14—the day the lockdown is scheduled to end. If this happens, there would be no other option but to continue with the restrictions till the numbers begin to fall.
The Modi operandi
Almost every leader across the world has failed to effectively deal with the crisis. Donald Trump is turning out to be a bigger malaise than the virus itself with his trademark bumbling, blundering and bluster. In London, Boris Johnson is now facing heavy criticism for first allowing the virus to spread unchecked in the hope it would lead to ‘herd immunity’ and then taking a U-turn to take decisions to suppress it.
So far, the spotlight has not fallen on Modi. This is primarily because India is still at the lower-end of the transmission spectrum and everyone is still hoping that the virus would be pushed back.
But, Modi’s approach so far has been baffling. First he failed to see the impact of his announcement that Indians bang utensils or clap on their balconies to show their gratitude to people of the frontline of the battle. This turned into a joke because of ineffective messaging as hundreds poured into the streets to clap, chant and ring bells in large numbers.
Then, he announced a lockdown that was already in place in many states without bothering to ensure the country was prepared for it. Ideally, arrangements should have been made to ensure people are not displaced, nobody goes hungry and everyone has shelter. For this, the government should have co-ordinated with states for setting up emergency shelters equipped with kitchens. In addition, arrangements should have been made to allow those stranded on the roads to reach a safe place. If India could airlift people from Wuhan, Italy and Iran, how difficult would it have been to requisition buses to ensure everyone reaches a safe place?
But, like demonetisation, the decision was announced without any preparation, on the assumption that the government would manage the consequences as they unfold. But, improvisation is not public policy, it’s a gamble. Unfortunately, India may end up paying a huge price of a cavalier approach to the epidemic.
Modi will, of course, escape censure and criticism. After announcing the decision, he has receded from the public space. The burden of implementing with the lockdown, dealing with its consequences is being handled by state governments. There may or may not be a vaccine for the virus, but, at the moment, the Modi government appears immune to any backlash. No wonder, instead of being on the battlefront, his ministers are watching Ramayana on Doordarshan.