The science is clear. There are only two known ways of protection against the Covid-19 virus till such time an anti-viral and/or vaccine is developed. First, frequent and thorough washing of hands; even the West has accepted the necessity of hygiene to fight disease for over a century now. Secondly, physical distancing; at least 1.5 metres between human beings at all times.
Sweden has gone about business as usual – protecting lives, livelihoods and perchance developing herd immunity – by adhering to these preventive steps. The Swedes have exhibited exemplary discipline in adhering to these preventive measures. As a result, public transport, educational institutions, workplaces, restaurants and cafes are open and post-Covid 19 life goes on with these behavioural changes now hardwired into societal interaction.
Ergo, lives and livelihoods flourish. India, on the other hand, opted for a complete lockdown for 40 days which ends on 3 May. There is now some evidence in the public domain to suggest if the lockdown continues till mid-May, which would imply an extension of another 12 days or so, the country could flatten the Covid-19 curve. Perhaps it won’t be needed and the spread of the virus would be substantially curtailed by 3 May itself.
That would be the best possible outcome. Ruling out a limited extension, though, would be irresponsible. Yet, there are howls of protest from a curious admixture of Modi Administration-haters, business leaders and the unelected claiming to speak for the Indian subaltern against considering a lockdown extension if the situation warrants it. The arguments trotted out by them are familiar and can be summarised as alleging that any suggestion of a limited extension of the lockdown reflects a self-serving, elitist view propagated by those with no skin in the game.
What the government of the day knows and professional protestors do not or least pretend not to, however, is the Indian reality. Physical distancing and the level of hand hygiene required by epidemiology to contain Covid-19 till a cure is found was always a non-starter in these parts. And it’s impossible to enforce. Perhaps precisely because the ruling dispensation is helmed by those who have emerged from the eco-system millions of Indians inhabit, they have got it right.
Had the lockdown not been imposed, the nightmare scenarios floated by sections of the Western establishment and echoed faithfully by the post-colonial Third World elite could well have come to pass. India’s derelict public health system would definitely not have been able to cope. The rich and the professional classes would have survived albeit with some damage thanks to private sector healthcare but for the rest of India bodies piling up on the streets could well have been a reality.
Instead, for arguably the first time in the contemporary history of India, there’s been a premium put on the value of the regular or garden variety of citizen’s life in times of calamity. So far, so good. But there are dangers on the horizon. The Centre could get carried away. On the evidence available thus far the Union government has shown both responsibility and restraint but it must guard against slipping into a statist, paternalistic, mai-baap role.
There is a difference between being responsible for the lives and livelihoods of millions in times of crises and deluding oneself into believing daddy knows best. India has experimented with a command economy in the past and still has the scars to show for it. More worryingly, different states could start getting pulled into the vortex of what may be termed competitive lockdown politics.
Each state may soon start claiming it is saving more lives by extending the lockdown beyond mid-May, incentivised by the appreciation of the Centre’s approach from an overwhelming majority of party-political neutrals. The penny drops for politicians long before it does for anyone else and each one of them knows the narrative of ‘lives saved’ is a winner at the hustings. Such an approach will devastate an already severely damaged economy and must be avoided at all costs.
For its part, the Modi Administration needs to amplify the message that it hopes evidence of a significant flattening of the Covid-19 curve will lead the team of scientists guiding it to advise the government to lift the lockdown as scheduled on 3 May. It should also let citizens know about the possibility of an extension of the lockdown till mid-May if the professionals assess it will take another 12 days for the curve to flatten decisively.
It will give all some time to prepare. Naturally, the two preventive steps viz hand hygiene and physical distancing will be the new reality and must, if needed, be enforced ruthlessly by the State. Crucially, various state governments need to accept that while it is perfectly within their domain to adopt variegated approaches towards green, yellow and red zones as advised by their respective scientific teams, these must be with the concurrence of the Centre. Ditto, the staggered easing of restrictions.
One size does not fit all but neither does being completely out of whack with the rest of the country given our socio-economic interconnectedness. It is worth underlining that the Indian Constitution provides for a unitary structure with federal characteristics and not the other way around despite what many including statecontraction theorists would have us believe.
(The writer is a senior, New Delhi-based journalist)