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It is more than two weeks that India has been under lockdown. News channels and social media have incessantly churned out terrabytes of footage and features. The focus has been on figures, theories, doomsday scenarios, lockdowns and lockdown-breakers, heroism of health workers, hate stories, calls for solidarity and oodles of symbolism. My sense is that every effort is being made to psyche the nation into extension of the lockdown through fear-mongering. And this effort is succeeding – new hotspots being found, states proposing extensions of lockdown and very little indication, if any, about the adequacy of our ramped up health infrastructure to handle a wider spread of the virus. More importantly, there is no concrete normalisation plan being spoken of, even if there is thought in that direction. The lockdown period terminates at the midnight of 14/15 April. Final consultations with the states will possibly happen on 11 April. Whatever the outcome of these consultations, one expects a public statement from the Government not before 12 or 13 April. As I said, there is no indication of a normalisation plan. Without such a plan, and a detailed one at that, any lift of lockdown will result in utter chaos. The conclusion is clear – prepare to stay indoors for some more time to come. There will be no light at the end of the tunnel till a Normalisation Plan is made public.

It has been said by many that the cure may be more devastating than the virus if we just go on extending the lockdown. Reducing the number of deaths due to COVID versus enhancing the number of deaths due to hunger, malnutrition and suicides may need to be balanced. Videoconferencing from air-conditioned spaces will not give the decision-makers a feel of the ground. The enormity of the inconvenience and deprivation of livelihood does not seem to be getting the attention it deserves. Daily wage earners will get desperate by the day. Private enterprises will start slashing pay and handing out pink slips. Tens of thousands of families have been separated in distant places owing to the lockdown. Thousands of students are waiting out time at their hostels to return to their homes. Domestic violence cases have reportedly shown a significant spike. Goods are stranded across national highways. The stories of human miseries are endless. I hope it does not become a case of Rome burning as Nero plays the fiddle. Life has to get back on the rails – and soon. If there is an extension of lockdown, it must not be for too long and the announcement must come with an assurance of a lockdown lift.

We are also obsessed with pandemic figures. How about being obsessed with providing medicines and trying to find a cure? How about telling the people how we fare in this department? This brings me to the point of the now famous drug hydroxychloroquine. I have read enough newspapers and seen enough news channels in my life to discern half-truths. The view that we have enough stocks of the drug is not convincing at all. The drug is being prescribed as a prophylaxis for health workers who are exposed to high viral loads. We are also magnanimously exporting the drug to the USA and other countries. The drug is not available over the counter and needs prescription – a good way to restrict general access. Some literature suggests that the drug has not been proven through full clinical trials and hence not recommended for general use. Then why is it in such great demand? The fact that it can be used as a prophylaxis by health workers also means it can be used for the same purpose by all of us. I suspect that we just do not have enough of it for general use within the country. But we do have enough for export. Beats me completely. I sincerely hope that the first country developing a vaccine displays a similar eagerness to share it with us.

The questions that therefore need to be answered in the next public statement by the Government are: –

  1. From what date is the lockdown going to be lifted? (Not how long more we will remain in lockdown).
  2. What is the graded normalisation plan? (We have to live with the virus).
  3. Why cannot hydroxychloroquine be made available over the counter with a conservative dosage that can provide a degree of protection to the ordinary citizen? (Or will we never reach there?

Legitimate questions that need honest answers…

11 Apr 20

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