Delhi’s government, which has faced huge criticism for not having taken up contact tracing of those testing positive for Covid-19, may well draw solace from the experience of South Australia, which has now admitted that a drastic sixday lockdown it had announced was triggered by a lie told to contact tracers. The Australian state believed it had been hit by a highly virulent strain of a virus after a man who tested positive claimed to have had only a brief brush with an infected person while buying a pizza. Two days after the state declared a lockdown, authorities discovered the man had in fact worked several shifts at the pizza bar alongside the infected person.

This clearly meant that while serious, his infection did not support fears of a highly contagious outbreak. The initial diagnosis had caused widespread panic and forced Australian cricket players to be airlifted out of Adelaide on the eve of their international engagement with India. Neighbouring states closed their borders and even the holding of an Australia-India Test match in Adelaide next month seemed to be in some doubt. Now, South Australia’s premier, Steven Marshall, has said: “Had this person been truthful to the contact tracing teams, we would not have gone into a six-day lockdown. To say I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement.These selfish actions of this individual have put our whole state in a very difficult situation.”

To place the challenges of contact tracing in perspective, certain comparisons are essential. South Australia has an area of nearly a million square kilometres and a population of 1.68 million. Delhi has an area of less than 1,500 square km and a population of 19 million. South Australia has reported a little over 500 cases while Delhi has more than 500,000. To imagine that Delhi would be able to carry out effective contact tracing with its huge numbers, its density of population and worse, with many of those who tested positive being from other states, is incredible.

Add to this the inherent frailties of human nature and the tendency to either embellish or conceal realities, as South Australia discovered, and the tracing prescription becomes a virtual non-starter.Yet even so-called medical professionals have thought nothing of berating the state government for failing to take up contact tracing effectively.

There are many gaps in the capital’s response to the virus, not the least of which was the tendency to play to populist galleries, be it in the management of weddings and festivals, or indeed in the hosting of a religious extravaganza that the state had no business getting involved in. But to accuse the government of getting everything wrong, as some now allege, is to both be unfair and to assume it is vested with powers it clearly does not possess.