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Covid-19: Pivoting to defeat

As we try to live with covid-19, we need to realize that in India the pandemic rages untamed

Is it now time to try to live with the coronavirus?alamy
Is it now time to try to live with the coronavirus?alamy

Lockdowns are no cure for covid-19, only a way to buy time. The longer a lockdown lasts, the costlier time gets. No matter how wealthy a nation, a point will come when buying more time is beyond its means. The hope is that the curve of infections will be bent downwards decisively before that moment is reached.

India has arrived prematurely at the stage of being unable to afford more time. The government is opening up relatively covid-free regions, allowing more businesses to operate within the worst-hit zones, restarting some passenger trains and planning the same for domestic flights. On 10 May, not long after the railway minister Piyush Goyal tweeted about the resumption of train services, news came of 4,308 infections reported in the previous 24 hours. That figure was 20% higher than the previous daily peak recorded on 6 May. We have been forced to ease restrictions while the epidemic rages untamed.

Does this mean the seven weeks spent in lockdown from 25 March-12 May were in vain? Not quite. We can only speculate where India would have been in the absence of mandatory social distancing but the fate of other nations offers a hint. On 9 March, India had reported a total of 47 cases. Two months later, on 9 May, we had a little over 62,000, a 1,320-fold increase. That is frightening until you consider that during the same period, Brazil went from 25 cases to 156,000, a 6,240-fold jump, nearly five times that of India. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the covid-19 threat, as a result of which preventive measures have been patchily enforced. It is reasonable to assume that the toll would have been even greater had regional and metropolitan authorities in Brazil intervened less strongly than they did.

Let us, therefore, grant that the lockdown was necessary and partially effective. What we learnt during those seven weeks, however, was sobering. Firstly, we learnt that neither heat nor the BCG vaccine stop the virus. The lag between West Europe and Africa related more to frequency of international travel than to weather. Nations like Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa have experienced the now familiar exponential growth curve since their first detected cases. The pace has not quite equalled that of Spain and Italy at their worst, and climate might explain some of the variance, but that only pushes the crisis a little further out. Without the curve being bent, health services in these countries are bound to be overwhelmed sooner or later.

Secondly, we learnt that victories over SARS-CoV-2 are temporary. Singapore, whose response to the pandemic in the first quarter of the year was considered exemplary, was hit by a serious outbreak in the dormitories of migrant workers that it is still struggling to contain. The city state went from less than 2,000 cases on 9 April to over 23,000 a month later. South Korea, another success story, reported a rebound in infections within days of encouraging citizens to go out freely. Although the 34 new infections reported on 10 May seem trivial, they were enough for Seoul’s mayor to close down the city’s nightclubs and bars indefinitely.

As India reopens, the new buzz phrase is “learning to live with SARS-CoV-2". “We have to learn to live with the virus," said the Union health ministry spokesperson Lav Agarwal on 8 May. “We have to learn to live with the coronavirus," said Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, the following day. This is a massive shift from the government’s rhetoric in previous months, which had focused on eliminating the disease. As late as 24 April, V.K Paul of the government policy think tank NITI Aayog showed a slide at a press briefing that suggested new infections would touch zero by 16 May.

The ease with which the virus spreads has continually surprised experts and made a mockery of many mathematical models before Paul’s. India, it appears, is simply not equipped to handle the challenge. Our cities are too densely populated for any meaningful distancing, our systems too inefficient for rigorous contact tracing, and our heath budgets too meagre for sufficient testing. Aside from a few bright spots like Kerala, and small states like Goa, Tripura and Manipur, the past weeks have been relentlessly grim.

The administration’s pivot to “learning to live with the virus" is an admission of defeat. We can wear masks, sanitize our hands regularly and avoid crowds where possible, but we could have done all that without the lockdown. The government brought the nation to a halt precisely because such individual measures are woefully inadequate.

The economy cannot operate with social distancing rules in place. Airlines, hotels, restaurants and movie theatres are only viable at high occupancy rates. Factories and offices need a cohort of workers to function efficiently. If offices are optimally staffed, public transport is bound to be overcrowded at rush hour. That fact alone guarantees a spike in infections when life returns to a semblance of normality.

The government’s handling of the SARS-CoV-2 situation can be faulted on many grounds, none more obvious than its treatment of migrant labourers. It should have foreseen that the lockdown could be extended, and cause great distress to those trying to survive without pay a long way from home. Viewing the same issue from a longer-term perspective, the government ought to have created a portable public distribution system around Aadhaar instead of expanding its mission beyond the original remit of delivering targeted subsidies and benefits. Had migrant workers been able to access rations where they lived, much of their suffering would have been alleviated. As matters stand, a “one nation one ration card" scheme is just getting started.

As far as containing the virus is concerned, I doubt if a different administration would have fared better. No matter who was in power at the Centre, they would be pivoting around now to “let us learn to live with the virus". But that is a meaningless phrase, for we cannot learn to live with a virus. Perhaps Yann Martel could write a novel about a young boy adrift on the ocean who learns to live with a virus but in actuality that is not possible with SARS-CoV-2. It is simply another way of saying, we cannot beat this thing, prepare to be infected and possibly to die.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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