JUST THIS WEEK, Anthony Fauci, the man who is leading the battle against Covid-19 in the US and one of the world’s best-known experts on infectious diseases, said that it had the potential to be as bad as the Spanish Flu, the worst pandemic in history. He was speaking in a webinar to students and CNN reported him saying: ‘If you look at the magnitude of the 1918 pandemic where anywhere from 50 to 75 to 100 million people globally died, that was the mother of all pandemics and truly historic. I hope we don’t even approach that with this, but it does have the makings of, the possibility of … approaching that in seriousness.’
Almost simultaneously, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Commissioner (BMC) Iqbal Chahal was averring that the spread had been overcome in Mumbai. The Economic Times reported him saying that the city does not need a lockdown and quoted him: ‘We are in total control of the situation. Yes, we are getting around 1,200 cases daily. However, more than 80% of these people have had a travel history. They have come from cities around Mumbai…We have boosted testing resources. Now, we are conducting more than 6,500 tests daily. We have relaxed restrictions since June 1. There are 1 crore people on the streets daily. Yet, we have only 1,200 cases per day, which shows that our policy of chase the virus has succeeded’.
As the person in charge of containing the disease, it is good to display optimism and keep the morale high but, if there were bookies accepting odds on the situation, then chances are you would make more money betting against this sanguine projection. The first reason is that the local suburban trains are yet to be fully operational and without it the city is always de facto in a state of lockdown and economical deep freeze. Offices just can’t function without employees able to get there. And should the local trains get going in full strength again with the usual crowds, then the virus will be waiting to rip through with numbers far greater than anything ever seen so far.
Another reason for not celebrating is contained in Chahal’s statement itself when he says that most of the cases being seen at present are coming from abutting cities. All those cities are, in fact, not separate because the majority of people work in Mumbai and commute daily to it. Separating them as geographically distinct might be administratively accurate but it means nothing in the context of the disease being contained. Even Kerala, which brought the first wave of infections to zero, is now seeing it go out of control with over 600 cases daily because lakhs of expats have returned. And, as against a one-time entry there, those living outside come and go daily to Mumbai. The city will have to be kept in perpetual isolation for control to remain.
But Chahal’s argument that lockdown is no longer necessary will still hold because it is inevitable, no matter what the state of the spread. Effects of months of lockdown in Mumbai have been economically crippling. Reopening is no longer choice, but survival.