TIME TO OPEN UP AND STOP ‘FENCE SITTING’…

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The nation has clapped as one. The nation has lit lamps as one. Now it is time for the government to firmly signal a relaxation of lockdown. However, there appears to be a hesitation to commit to a lifting of restrictions. All statements so far have said that an extension is not being contemplated. This language must change from the negative to the positive. The statement I would like to hear is ‘The lockdown will be lifted on 15 April 20’. By all means, qualify that with safeguards and conditions. Providing certainty is essential. As I pen this piece, the Indian Railways and Air India, our national carriers, are the only ones that have been told to sit on the fence. Private airlines have started accepting bookings. Why such mixed signals?

Twenty one days of lockdown was meant to serve a purpose. Apart from minimising person-to-person exposure, it gave the country a window to ramp up medical facilities and other infrastructure to contain spread, minimise fatalities, identify risk clusters and progress towards finding a cure or vaccine. I think much has been done in the last eleven days and much more will be done in the remaining ten. Adequate availability of test kits including rapid testing kits will ensure more aggressive testing starting with high risk clusters. We have over 1000 government microbiology labs across the country which have not yet been tasked for testing. Such a formidable capability must be mobilised immediately for testing and development of antidotes.

We must return to ‘business as usual’ in accordance with a well-conceived plan. Staggering resumption of activities with a view to avoid overcrowding will be critical. Plans for the return of migrant labour must be robust with policy changes for their management and welfare. Organisations must continue working from home to the extent feasible. The ban on international travel must continue for an indefinite period without exception to any country or personality. Had we banned international travel earlier, we would have been very much more in control today. No amount of repetition is enough to reiterate that management of migrant labour, delayed stoppage of international flights and despicable community behaviour (including administrative lapses that contributed to such behaviour) have been three major failings in our fight against COVID 19 – lessons we must never forget as we plan to resume normalcy.

We have to live with the virus till we develop immunity or a vaccine is found. Symptomatic treatment will continue till then. Individuals must raise their immunity by all available means. All hospitals must have flu clinics and isolation facilities so that COVID and regular patients can be segregated. All temporary medical and public health facilities created must continue to operate till we achieve firm control over the situation. There will be fatalities and our municipal facilities would need to manage them. Discipline and hygiene, both individual and public must be maintained. Law and order mechanisms must permit authorities to restrict public behaviour that is contrary to the demands of the time. Public rallies and demonstrations must be banned. If we wish to resume our normal lives, the government cannot do it alone. Community behaviour will play a dominant role in the normalisation process and will also be the government’s biggest challenge, in particular the management of mass public transport.

Twenty one days of lockdown is long enough. Twenty two days may be one day too many. Conditions in India are different. Poverty and inconvenience beyond a point will precipitate defiance of lockdown. If that happens, the police and other enforcement agencies will be hapless bystanders.

I have no quarrel with public spectacles of solidarity. They surely help in building the collective spirit. At the same time, it will be wise to remember Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried ‘Wolf’ to play a trick on the villagers. Nobody came the third time.

06 Apr 20

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