The first known case of Covid-19 in India was identified on 30 January 2020. The first death was recorded on 12 March. As of 13 May, India is nearing 75,000 cases and 2,500 deaths. For a country of 135 crore people, those numbers are minuscule.
Indians have been living under what is arguably the world’s harshest lockdown, though the restrictions have belatedly seen considerable easing and regional variation. People are getting impatient now, wanting the economy to be opened up.
This is not a unique situation. This is what happens in pandemics: the disease lulls us into complacency. And that’s when it strikes. This is exactly what happened with the Spanish flu of 1918: the first wave was the trailer. It was the second and third wave that was deadly, killing large numbers of people.
Even if we account for heavy under-reporting, under-testing and some data fudging, India has no doubt escaped the most brutal potential of this pandemic. This is engendering a false sense of victory, when the war has just about begun. We haven’t even won the first battle yet. The number of cases and deaths are rising every day, creating new records. It’s far from over.
India is just about experiencing the first wave, which it has no doubt staggered with a lockdown. This first wave, experts say, is likely to peak in June-July. But that calculation seems to be on the presumption that the lockdown in its current form will continue.
Lockdown versus life, a global challenge
Every country has its unique political, economic and health infrastructure challenges. Nevertheless, every country in the world is facing this dilemma — lives or livelihood?
If a country eases restrictions, the infection flares up. Look at Germany. It was one of the best performing countries when it came to battling the coronavirus. But as it eased its lockdown, its infection rate went up per person from below 1 to above 1. This is only to be expected.
If a country goes into lockdown mode, economic ruin stares at it in the face. That’s what is happening in India. According to the Centre for the Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE), 84 per cent households have already experienced a decline in income. That’s almost everyone.
India is particularly vulnerable to both the virus and the economic impact of a lockdown. A crowded country with poor health infrastructure, India could have become a global COVID-19 hotspot in no time. It is a poor country where most people live hand to mouth and an informal economy, which was anyway experiencing a slowdown before the virus.
How to live with the virus
The way out is to have a bit of both — lockdown and economic activity. Credit is due to Narendra Modi for at least trying to work towards that direction: “Jaan bhi aur jahaan bhi”. We want to save our lives and conquer the world.
This would need training 135 crore Indians on how to live with the virus. Making this possible needs these six elements:
1. Social distancing: While the face mask has become universal, Indians still don’t seem to understand social distancing. There is the problem of lack of space in crowded cities, but even when people can practice social distancing, they seem culturally opposed to the idea.
Central and state governments, as well as local authorities, need to do a lot more to make people follow social distancing rules. The first day of rush at liquor shops was instructive. Making social distancing a reality will need efforts by authorities at all steps. A whole new way of crowd and queue management needs to become standard protocol.
2. How not to wear a mask: People have understood the need to cover their faces, but wearing a mask for long hours in the summer heat can be claustrophobic. People need to understand that dangling a mask around the neck is not enough. The virus only needs a small entry into your nose, mouth, or even eyes. In public places, a mask has to be worn and worn correctly at all times.
The other things Indians should know are how to take off the mask, avoid touching the surface of the mask, disinfect and re-use masks, whether they’re just a handkerchief or an N95. Central and state governments have made almost no effort in training the masses on mask-wearing hygiene and protocol. Those choosing to wear gloves also need to follow similar protocols and not get infected by the glove itself.
3. Don’t forget to wash hands: The public conversation now is all about lockdown, and we have forgotten that the easiest and most effective way to kill the virus is with soap and water. Central and state governments need to keep hammering in this point, because as people become complacent about the virus they’ll also become laxer about washing hands. To open up the economy, it is important that this is not forgotten.
4. Sanitising the mobile phone: The external surface we touch the most is our mobile phone. It’s the surface we are most likely to pass on coronavirus to from our hands. We might then wash our hands, only to get the virus back from the phone. Aarogya Setu or not, disinfecting the phone on a daily basis may be one of the most important things to do. Mobile phones are known to be a storehouse of infections.
5. Localise the lockdown: Too much of our Covid-19 policy is being designed centrally. The home ministry says states cannot water down the restrictions imposed by it. Successfully fighting the coronavirus and simultaneously kickstarting the economy needs showing faith in local authorities. The Centre’s one-size-fits-all recipe is bound to end in disaster of one kind or another.
Not just state governments, but district authorities and panchayats all should be given leeway in figuring out what works best for them. The Bhilwara model in Rajasthan and Kerala’s incredible success in containing the spread of the virus shows the need for localised approach.
A localised approach, however, may not work everywhere — the failed ‘Agra model’ is an example. But this is also how we’ll encourage innovation. Now that we have three different zones — red, orange, green — it is time to give state governments a lot more freedom in deciding the way forward.
6. Creating an odd-even model for travel and work: History shows us that lockdown and easing is a repeat cycle during a pandemic. Instead of letting the virus dictate this cycle, we could get smarter and evolve our own zig-zag approach. To reduce crowds in public places, offices, markets, and transport, an odd-even approach could be used.
For example, a market could be allowed to open on alternate days, or a particular non-essential service could be allowed to be open only on weekends. Or offices belonging to a certain sector could be allowed to function only twice a week, and work from home for the rest. Auto-rickshaws could be allowed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while Uber/Ola could be allowed on the remaining three days.
Researchers in Israel have a very logical idea. They say it takes three days for someone who’s got the virus to start infecting others. And most people recover from the virus in 10 days. So they suggest allowing people to step out for four days, and then be at home for 10 days. This 4-10 cycle can help us move towards normalcy.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.