lockdown on TV,
THINK OF A truck on a highway, speeding towards you at 100km/h…but now, it’s coming at you at a much slower 60km/h! We’ve bought time,” Shamika Ravi, director of research at Brookings lndia tweeted a few days ago. Ravi, in a recent study based on Covid-19 infection data in India provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), and authenticated by the Government of India, to researchers at Johns Hopkins, US, concluded that the rapid, virtual doubling of infections every two days in the initial stages has now slowed to a doubling in five days. Thus, the speed of the spread of infection has visibly slowed in India, based on the available data. While the much desired ‘flattening the curve’ may not still have happened, the sharp bends and dangerous upward surges may well have been checked by urgent steps taken by the Government in the early stages.
These steps include the aggressive flooding of all media and other platforms with messages about how to protect oneself and others from catching the infection, who to contact upon symptoms developing, mandatorily testing all those coming in from abroad and enforcing quarantine on them, flying in Indians from abroad and keeping them in isolation for two weeks before releasing them back home, strict contact-tracing of those testing positive for Covid-19, and then, barring all inbound flights.
But the big challenge facing the Government was how to protect a population of 1.3 billion from community transmission, Stage 3 in the spread of Covid-19, especially with an underequipped health infrastructure and personnel. That entailed urgent, bold and out-of-the-box political thinking, a move that Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to take when he announced the socially acceptable, self-imposed ‘janata curfew’, including a public bell-clanging and hand-clapping at 5 pm on a Sunday (March 22nd) to thank the frontline warriors in fighting the spread of infection in others at huge risk to themselves. These warriors included the doctors, nurses, parameds, sanitation workers, ambulance drivers and others.
Thus, having thus first conscientised ordinary Indians to the dangers of Covid-19, Modi made the most significant and unprecedented announcement, on the evening of March 24th, to “lock down” the entire country—a decision that some states had already taken—in “a sort of curfew” that would enforce self-isolation and physical distancing among citizens. It risked being a highly unpopular decision, especially in view of difficult access to essentials, closing down workplaces of every sort and, most of all, loss of personal income and the hit that the national economy would take. It entailed a big responsibility on regional governments to shelter, feed and provide medical help to thousands thrown out of gear at the personal and the economic levels. But it was a hard decision that needed to be taken to avert a health disaster of epic proportions. It needed firm political will to be enforced. And it needed cooperation from a public whose history and cultural traditions have been marked by multiplicity and argumentativeness.
By the time Modi announced the lockdown, goods trains carrying foodgrain had reached railway stations across the country
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Things could go wrong on many fronts with a hard decision of this sort. And they did, with reports of violations in high society as in the case of singer Kanika Kapoor. Caught in the thick of the national lockdown were also the many people, including some from other nations, who attended a religious gathering in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi that houses the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat. The meet resulted in a sudden outbreak of coronavirus cases and the detention many people. This has turned the area into a Covid-19 hotspot, with almost 100 positive coronavirus cases linked to it. It had already claimed the lives of more than half-a-dozen attendees at the time of going to press. As of April 1st, nine Indians—thousands were stationed at the Nizamuddin Markaz building since March 10th—six in Telangana, one each in Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, and Karnataka, had died of Covid-19. Of the 25 cases reported on March 30th in Delhi alone, 18 were from this gathering in Nizamuddin. This prompted the authorities to quarantine the participants at the meet and even consider legal action against its organisers, a move that would send out a strong signal that anyone violating the lockdown would be meted out a strict penalty.
For his part, Modi is leading the fight against coronavirus from the front. In his first address on the importance of social distancing and minimising physical contact, he emphasised the dangers of the infection and the need to resort to self-discipline in order to make the ‘janata curfew’ a success. His address resulted in a positive, voluntary response across the country. It was only after this response from citizens across the board that, having prepared the ground, Modi announced the 21-day nationwide lockdown.
It was not an ill-thought decision. Modi had, in the preceding weeks, consulted and connected with several sectors in preparation, even ordering around 40,000 scarce ventilators to boost personal protection equipment (PPE) for medical professionals. Right from the Centre’s call for the 21-day national lockdown to mobilising much-needed medical supplies and PPE for medical professionals to activating economic packages for different sectors and income and food support for the poor, Modi’s response to the coronavirus threat has been exemplary given the size of India’s population, its density, the state of the healthcare system and a traditional culture that was unlikely to take to decisions like locking down the country. By the time Modi announced the lockdown, goods trains carrying foodgrain had reached railway stations across the country. The Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) trinity has also helped in this crisis. In states like Assam, stadiums were converted into hospitals to quarantine Covid-19 positive patients and the Indian Railways are readying 80,000 isolation beds on trains for people testing positive. At the G-20 video conference on March 26th, Modi emphasised that saving human lives should be given priority at this juncture by all instead of economic targets for global prosperity. He also called for the sharing of medical research and development for all besides reforming the WHO which appeared to have shown slow reflexes and questionable judgement in the crisis.