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Stopping traffic, discipline, ‘braking’ Covid spread — why states are bringing back lockdowns

Various states like Maharashtra, UP, Assam and Bengal have imposed fresh lockdowns, while Karnataka has refused to extend the one in place. Here’s why.

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New Delhi: The union territory of Jammu and Kashmir Wednesday became the latest to reimpose a lockdown to control the spread of Covid-19. The lockdown will be imposed for six days in every district of the Kashmir division except Bandipora, owing to the rising number of cases — J&K now has 15,258 cases, more than double the figure of 7,497 on 30 June, with the Kashmir division accounting for 5,263 of the territory’s 6,540 active cases, and 243 of its 263 deaths.

This is part of a growing trend across India — numerous states are reintroducing full or partial lockdowns as novel coronavirus cases continue to rise, citing different reasons such as “stopping unnecessary traffic” in the case of Uttar Pradesh, or “putting a brake” on the spread of the pandemic in Assam.

The central government had, on 8 June, begun the process of phasing out the two-and-a-half-month-long nationwide lockdown, which had been in place since 25 March to “arrest” the spread of Covid-19. But the exponential rise in cases since has cast doubt on its effectiveness — when India went into lockdown on 25 March, there were 564 cases, while on 22 July, there are 11,92,915, of which 4,11,133 are active.

ThePrint spoke to officials from these states to understand the purpose and aim of the fresh lockdowns, and to experts on how effective these can be.

Also read: One in four people in Delhi infected by Covid till first week of July, sero survey finds

What a lockdown should be used for 

While state governments are mostly looking at lockdowns as a quick fix to bring down cases, experts say a lockdown — the most extreme form of social distancing — should not be a knee-jerk reaction to bring down the numbers. Rather, they say it is not an end unto itself, and should be judiciously used to build healthcare infrastructure to be better prepared to deal with the pandemic.

Writing in Boston Review, Debraj Ray, Julius Silver Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Science and professor of economics at New York University, and retired economist S. Subramanian wrote: “…lockdowns are not supposed to be punitive. They are meant to provide time, among other things, to create, deploy, and allocate medical resources; to prepare and train a vast support network of health care and contact-tracing personnel; to rearrange commercial, infrastructural, and educational resources to meet a new era; and to psychologically prepare society for the long haul”.

But this doesn’t seem to be the priority for states like UP, Assam, West Bengal and Maharashtra, where the idea of reintroducing partial or complete lockdowns is to “break the chain of transmission”.

‘Imposing discipline’ in Maharashtra

The Maharashtra government has permitted municipal corporations and district collectors to impose lockdowns within their jurisdiction if required. Accordingly, the municipal corporations of Thane, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan Dombivli, Bhiwandi Nizampur, Panvel, Mira Bhayander, Pune, Pimpri Chinchwad, Solapur and Aurangabad re-imposed complete lockdowns for between 10 and 20 days this month.

Maharashtra has recorded 3,18,695 Covid cases, a number that spiked after the state government announced its ‘Mission Begin Again’, which granted relaxations to certain sectors such as standalone shops and establishments, private and government offices, salons and beauty parlours and hotels and lodges. This, it hoped, would spur the economy, while also lifting curbs on the movement of people.

The rest of the state continues to be under partial lockdown, with a few government-granted relaxations, until 31 July.

“A lockdown is not a pleasant decision. It brings a lot of hardships to people and loss of livelihood is its biggest repercussion. But, it is has been four months that we have been dealing with Covid now and the curve is still very steep,” said Abhijit Bangar, municipal commissioner of the Navi Mumbai civic body.

“Somewhere, we need to break the chain and so we have to resort to an unpopular decision today to prevent an even more unpopular decision tomorrow,” he said.

Bangar also listed two benefits of the lockdown — restricting any unnecessary movement of people, and spreading awareness that self-discipline is important.

Sandeep Malvi, deputy municipal commissioner and spokesperson for the Thane Municipal Corporation, said early detection of cases is one of the biggest benefits of a lockdown.

“I am not saying that’s the only solution, but a lockdown ensures that everyone stays in their houses. This has made door-to-door surveys more effective. Since 2 July (when Thane was locked down), we have surveyed seven lakh people in containment zones. Early detection will help us break the chain,” Malvi said, agreeing with Bangar that it helps in “imposing discipline”.

— Reported by Manasi Phadke

Also read: Govt could wait for Covid vaccine before declaring steps to revive demand, says CEA Subramanian

Lockdown for sanitisation in UP

Uttar Pradesh has imposed a “weekend lockdown”, with Chief Secretary R.K. Tiwari stating: “Considering the current situation, a decision has been taken for containment of Covid-19 and some vector-borne diseases such as encephalitis, malaria, dengue… The state government has imposed certain restrictions from 10 pm Friday to 5 am Monday.”

A government official who wished to remain anonymous told ThePrint: “The main aim is to sanitise Covid-affected areas in every town. At least two days are required for this process. So, we decided to do it on weekends. Another purpose is that we want to stop unnecessary traffic on weekends, which may increase the number of cases.”

The official added that the measure was taken because “social distancing norms are not followed in many places on weekends”. “People still come out on the roads for no reason because they have the day off, and they don’t follow norms either,” he said.

Uttar Pradesh has seen 53,288 confirmed cases of Covid, of which 20,204 are currently active.

— Reported by Prashant Srivastava

Putting a ‘brake’ in Assam

On 26 June, the Assam government imposed a total lockdown in Guwahati over concerns of community spread. In the rest of the state, there is a weekend lockdown in place. State Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the lockdown would be lifted in phases in the upcoming days.

Asked whether the lockdown has helped control the spread of Covid in Guwahati, National Health Mission director for Assam, Dr Lakshmanan S., said: “Lockdown is kind of a brake. Why do we have a brake in the car? So that we can drive fast. In the same way, these lockdowns are to control the situation.”

Despite the lockdown, however, the number of cases rose drastically in Kamrup Metropolitan district, where Guwahati is located. Until 1 July, the district had recorded 1,727 cases, but the number has now increased to 7,165, according to the state government’s website. Assam also recorded its highest single-day spike of 1,202 Covid-19 cases during this time.

Lakshmanan attributed the spike to the increased use of antigen tests. The total number of Covid-19 cases in Assam stands at 25,382.

“Once the lockdown is withdrawn, there is a possibility of surge of cases. This is a real challenge which we are worried about,” he said.

— Reported by Angana Chakrabarti

Also read: ‘Self-imposed’ prevention measures, social distancing can stop second Covid wave, study says

Staying ‘ahead’ of the virus in West Bengal

The West Bengal government has admitted to instances of community transmission in some places, and imposed two days of strict lockdown every week across the state. The notification, issued Tuesday, said the state-wide lockdown will be observed on 23, 25 and 29 July. Future dates will be announced by the government after a high-level meeting and review of the situation.

However, experts call this lockdown an “eyewash”, as this will not contain the virus.

Virologist and public health expert Nemai Bhattacharya said: “This does not have any scientific justification and devoid of logic; this is just an eyewash.”

Bhattacharya added that the government needs to plan an uninterrupted lockdown and announce it at short notice.

Meanwhile, the Bengal government has imposed strict “localised lockdowns” in containment zones, and has suspended domestic flight operations between six hotspot cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Nagpur and Ahmedabad — and Kolkata until 31 July.

Last week, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said: “Cases are rising largely in urban areas. So we will combine three to four districts as one combined cluster. There are four nodal officers assigned to four districts. Numbers will rise, but don’t panic; we are prepared… We do not have any immediate plans for complete lockdown unless there is major deterioration.”

The state has turned stadiums, schools, night shelters, academies and lodges into Covid hospitals due to the shortage of infrastructure. In the past three months, no sustainable medical infrastructure was built in the state.

The government has requisitioned some unused office buildings and similar structures including hotels and lodges to use them as safe homes — spaces for those Covid-positive patients who have no place to isolate themselves at home. According to the state’s health bulletin, there are 106 safe homes with around 6,900 beds across districts.

There are 47,030 confirmed cases in West Bengal.

— Reported by Madhuparna Das 

Also read: Why you should not get depressed over studies that say Covid antibodies fade fast

Karnataka won’t extend lockdown

Karnataka’s Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa has categorically said that his government does not find the need to extend the week-long lockdown that began on 14 July, as resource-mobilisation is also equally important for the government to function. The lockdown ended Wednesday at 5 am.

Yediyurappa, in an address through the electronic and the social media, made it clear that lockdowns are not a solution to control the spread of the pandemic.

The CM admitted that the Covid-19 situation has gone out of hand, and declared that the only way to fight the pandemic was to compulsorily wear a mask, wash hands and maintain social distancing.

“Each citizen has to take care of his/her health by strictly following the guidelines,” he said.

Dr K. Sudhakar, Karnataka’s medical education minister and one of the decision-makers handling Covid, also said that the government believes that lockdown is not the solution.

“We are focussing on the ‘5T’ strategy — trace, track, test, treat and technology — to control the spread. As the cases started increasing in the state, especially in Bengaluru, we held discussions with several health experts and sought their suggestions,” Sudhakar said.

“Considering these suggestions, the CM took the decision to implementing lockdown, which was the time we took to recalibrate our strategy and step up the infrastructure according to the changing scenario,” the minister said, adding that Karnataka wasn’t ready for the sudden surge after people were allowed to move freely between states.

— Reported by Rohini Swamy

Differing opinions

ThePrint also spoke to Dr C.N. Manjunath, director at Sri Jayadeva Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences, who is also the nodal officer for labs and testing in Karnataka’s Covid-19 task force. He said lockdowns are not the answer, though there exists a difference of opinion on their effects.

“One version is that people say that the lockdown can break the chain, while the other theory is that by locking down, you are only postponing the surge. But it is true that lockdowns do give us time to reinforce our capabilities and provide better infrastructure,” Manjunath said.

A senior official in the Karnataka government working closely with pandemic management said lockdowns help, only if they are used to improve infrastructure capability, not to stop or control the spread.

Also read: Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNtech & Moderna — how the 3 potential Covid vaccines stack up


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