WHAT BEYOND 21 DAYS? THE QUESTION YOU WERE AFRAID TO ASK…

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The question ‘What beyond 21 days of lockdown?’ is occupying much of the Indian mindscape. Honestly, I do not have the foggiest idea. And I suspect neither does our Government at this stage. It is not surprising that all reports state that “the lockdown will continue till/services will remain suspended till…” and not “the lockdown will be lifted on/services will resume on… .” Further, the relief package announced by the Government for 3 months has fuelled speculation that we may be headed for an extended lockdown. But nobody is asking the question – why advance the agony?

We need to understand the reason behind a 21-day lockdown. Why not 11 or 31? While many of us are aware, let me briefly explain. Based on epidemiological research, a mean incubation period of the novel Coronavirus has been taken as 14 days. More recent analyses indicate it could be less. So if the lockdown is well established and social contact is minimised, we may be able to stop unchecked community spread, focus testing, isolate risk pockets and get a handle on the actual numbers in 14 days. Allowing another week of safety margin to cater for contingencies that may preclude an effective lockdown, testing delays, access to remote areas etc, we should be able to assess the degree of control achieved during the last week of lockdown.

This lockdown period is also critical for ramping up our infrastructure and capability to minimise spread of the virus and contain the number of deaths. This is indeed a monumental challenge involving marshalling human resources, creating additional quarantine and isolation facilities, obtaining test kits, enhancing numbers of test centres and equipping them, procuring protective equipment and prophylactic medicines for health workers and revving up logistics dramatically to ensure efficient procurement, transportation, distribution and resupply. In a country like India, the lack of health infrastructure is a major limitation. The good news is that the country has acknowledged it and is sparing no effort to enhance capability.

What happens after 21 days is a question that cannot be answered today. What can be confidently said is that the Government would be as eager to restore normalcy as much as we would like to resume our normal lives. The economy is suffering. People are jobless, thousands have been forcibly separated from their families. Educational institutions are closed. Business has paused. Transportation of non-essential goods has stopped. The poor are the worst-hit. Beyond a point, even the salaried class will be badly affected as employers will be hard-pressed to pay employees. A prolonged lockdown is not sustainable and will become counter-productive beyond a point. We must therefore understand that lifting of the lockdown is in everybody’s interest.

The primary determinant for this, however, would be the degree of control achieved over the Coronavirus spread. The national endeavour aims to manage the fallout within our capabilities, suitably enhanced during the lockdown period. Every individual must put his full weight behind this effort. Whether it is staying home, manufacturing test kits or ventilators, creating quarantine quarters, enforcing lockdown or managing migrant exodus, each of us has a duty. How committedly we perform this duty will determine what happens after 21 days.

Restoration of normalcy will be chaotic in the first few days. People will rush for rail and air bookings, markets will see high footfalls and migrant labour will return to cities in hordes – just to indicate a few scenarios. There is an urgent need by administrations to plan in detail for the return of normalcy including catering for any resulting spike in infections. And it is our bounden duty as citizens to behave responsibly.

The world’s gaze is on India. Let us turn this gaze into an amazed look of wondrous respect and admiration.

29 Mar 20

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