New Delhi: India’s three-week lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 should be extended by at least a week as the large migrant exodus from the big cities may have partly defeated its purpose, multiple government health experts told ThePrint.
While it was initially felt that a 21-day lockdown could be enough, the unforeseen migrant exodus that ensued after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on 24 March is leading these experts in public health and epidemiology to rethink the duration.
ThePrint reached three government health experts for this report and all spoke on the condition of anonymity.
An earlier version of this report had said that the government could extend the lockdown by a week due to the large migrant exodus. However, Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba was quoted by ANI as saying that there was no plan to extend the lockdown beyond 21 days.
The director-general of the Press Information Bureau also tweeted that there was no basis to that report.
“The analysis of the lockdown can be studied only when the chain is broken completely, but due to the mass migration across borders, that has not happened,” said the first government expert. “In that sense, there could be a need to extend the lockdown.”
The need for the extension in the light of the large-scale migration could be communicated to the prime minister at any time, said the other two experts.
The Modi government Sunday asked state governments to ensure there is no movement of people across cities or on highways during the ongoing lockdown until 14 April.
Even though the government has asked states to ensure migrants and students are properly provided for during the lockdown, thousands have set off on foot for their hometowns, casting a cloud over the efficacy of the attempt to contain the pandemic that has infected more than 1,000 people in India.
In a veiled reference to the migrants, Modi in his radio address to the nation Sunday said, “I understand that no one wants to break the rules deliberately, but there are some people who are doing so. To them, I will say that if they don’t follow this lockdown, it will be difficult to protect ourselves from the danger of coronavirus.”
While the first expert said that the lockdown should be extended by a week, the other two said that at least two months of a lockdown would be needed to contain the spread.
“We need at least two months of lockdown to win this battle,” said one of the other two experts, who is part of the Union government’s Covid-19 task force. “It needs to be extended and results need to be monitored…the relapse could result in a deadlier comeback.”
Experts vs political leaders
From China to the US, the question over the duration of a lockdown has emerged as a contentious argument between experts and epidemiologists on the one side and political leaderships on the other.
While China is the only country that has partially lifted the lockdown in Wuhan, most other countries such as the US, Italy, Spain and Britain are staring at an uncertain and extended lockdown situation.
When US President Donald Trump floated the idea of lifting restrictions to allow normal economic activity to resume by Easter, he faced a pushback from both his key scientific advisors such as Dr Anthony Fauci and ardent political supporters such as Lindsey Graham. Fauci, who is an infectious disease expert and a leading member of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, had rejected Trump’s idea of reopening the economy and remarked that the “the virus makes the timeline”.
China, which has succeeded in cutting down the number of daily new local cases to single digits, had imposed a two-month long lockdown in Wuhan. And even now Beijing’s decision to gradually lift the lockdown is being met with opposition from both provincial authorities and citizens.
Epidemiology experts in the key coronavirus-hit countries — Italy, Spain, Britain and the US — are citing the Chinese model when it comes to lifting the lockdown. These experts argue that the lockdown needs to be in place “as long as necessary”.
‘Lockdown is the only option’
The Indian government experts maintained that even as the government needs to ensure that migrants are taken care of and provided for during the period of strict restrictions, a lockdown is the only solution.
“Considering the trend among other nations, India needs at least one month of lockdown,” said one of the other two experts who is from the health ministry. “While the economic cost of the lockdown will be huge, a coronavirus-struck economy — particularly if deaths rise — will be worse.”
The expert from the task force added that along with testing, a lockdown is the only solution. “It is not possible to test 130 crore people… Who will collect these many samples and who will process them? Lockdown is the only solution.”
The expert added that the result of the lockdown will be seen after 14 days. “Meanwhile, those who were infected before the lockdown was announced will be diagnosed,” the expert added.
The expert also said that it is, however, prima facie expected that the lockdown would have contained the spread to some extent. “It is expected that the lockdown has prevented those who were already infected to spread it further… Hence, after 14 days, the number of infections is likely to come down.”