The public should read the Unlock 4 document. Not because it informs what will open and what will remain closed but because it shows the Indian government’s current thinking about the state of the country.
The government’s intent, it appears, is to regain as much normalcy as circumstances allow. It’s otherwise difficult to explain that a country that had imposed one of the longest ‘strict lockdown’ in the world would swing to the other extreme at a time when it records the highest number of daily cases.
Let us recall what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had told the nation on March 24 while announcing the lockdown. He had said, “…maintain physical distance from each other and stay within the confines of one’s home. There is no other way to escape coronavirus.”
That was a stark truth then and it remains more so even today. On March 24, the country had less than 600 cases. Just about anyone who mattered said then that the lockdown will flatten the curve. Today, we are adding that many cases every 11 minutes! Those who welcomed the lockdown, now welcome unlock 4 as well.
Something has changed fundamentally since March 2020. No, it is not the duplicity of the well-to-do, as some would like to assert. Nor is it lockdown fatigue, as others would argue. It cannot also be that we had vainly hoped someone would answer our prayers and things would soon be hunky-dory. The fact is that the invisible virus has made us look helpless and infinitely small.
We valued lives over livelihood then and seem to value livelihood over lives today. However, it would be incorrect to assume that we have given up. If anything, we have realised that it is only so much that we can do. Meanwhile, either the virus runs its course and we develop herd immunity or a miracle drug or vaccine emerges out of laboratories to blunt its virulence. Until that happens, we need to take all the necessary steps to protect ourselves.
Unlock 4 or its previous versions should be seen as making the best of a bad situation. There is no other way to explain why the government should allow the running of metros. Figure this: Before Covid-19, Rajiv Chowk Metro station in Delhi witnessed a daily footfall of nearly five lakh passengers or about 20,000 passengers at any given hour. If the authorities now follow the new guidelines and maintain social distance, they will have to accommodate about 8,000 people inside the station at any given hour. By any account, this is a big number notwithstanding all the sincere and hard labour the authorities will perform. Crowd management would be a challenge under the best of circumstances.
But the problem does not end with people at the station. Passengers boarding the metro at the originating station do not get off at the next station. The metro, thus, keeps adding passengers until such time that, what the authorities call, the entry-exit balance is reached. This usually happens after the metro has travelled to a few stations. And here lies the rub. If fewer passengers board the metro, the crowd bulges at the station increasing the chance of spreading the infection; and, if the metro carries more passengers than is required then the likelihood of infection increases among passengers on the metro. Given the sheer numbers, authorities may not always control the situation. It will be left to the passengers to protect themselves and it is time we admit that their action often leaves much to be desired.
The Unlock 4 document implicitly admits that people will have to act responsibly. To be fair, the government has repeatedly asked people to wear masks, wash hands, maintain social distance, and step out of home only when necessary. On the other hand, it has gradually eased the lockdown allowing people to go about their daily lives with care and caution. If the daily occurrence of cases is anything to go by, government efforts have fallen short of expectations.
One reason is that it started on the wrong note. When the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, the prime minister first spoke to the leaders of SAARC countries and then to the chief ministers of the states. A few days later, he declared a lockdown. The Government of India immediately invoked the Disaster 2005 Management Act and the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act to contain, control, and mitigate the outbreak. In days to come, it became clear that the central government through its administrative machinery was monitoring, managing, and leading the national effort.
However, as time went by and the pandemic began to affect a large number of people, the state governments began responding to local exigencies. Their role acquired sharp focus. The discourse then shifted to the performance of the state governments and its chief ministers.
Then came the third stage. We are living through it now. The country has the highest number of cases when Unlockdown 4 has begun. The onus of protection now has shifted to civil society and the citizens.
The poor, the marginalised and the daily wagers will welcome Unlockdown 4 as it creates opportunities to earn and eke out a living. Hunger is a cruel reality for them and the risk of death is an acceptable gamble. Under any circumstance, poverty is a hard row to hoe; it offers no real choice to the poor and the daily wage earner. They survive by seeking immediate gratification.
Not so for the middle class. It can delay its gratification; sit out until the virus wears out. It possesses the social and cultural capital to do so. It will not particularly welcome Unlockdown 4. The risk of death is not a dice they want to play with.
(Pradeep Krishnatray is former director, Research and Strategic Planning, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)