I recently completed 14 days of quarantine at my residence in Cuttack, Odisha, after I returned from my Fulbright post-doctoral research fellowshsip at Harvard Law School. Enforcing home-quarantine of foreign returnees has been a challenge for state governments across the country. There have been many examples of people violating their quarantine, putting others at risk.
While Odisha has not been without incidents of administrative lapses and wilful negligence, the state government has done a far better job of monitoring the quarantine situation than most of its counterparts. Even though the bureaucratic inefficiencies are still glaringly visible, the state machinery has done a rather commendable job so far.
A digital database helping decision-making
One of the astute measures the Naveen Patnaik government took was to start an online portal and a helpline number where foreign returnees are required to register themselves. While lack of registration will trigger criminal penalties, the government has also incentivised the process by offering Rs 15,000 to all individuals who register themselves and complete the 14-day quarantine.
The online form requires a foreign returnee to provide details of recent travel history and also local residential details along with contact information. There were, however, two shortcomings in the implementation that I noticed from my experience.
While this measure has been sufficiently publicised within Odisha, there was no proper notification regarding this at the Bhubaneswar International Airport. Thus a person returning will be reliant on his/her friend or relatives for informing him/her about this new rule. Also, there was no announcement in the New Delhi-Bhubaneswar flight in this regard.
It took almost 18 hours for an acknowledgement number to be generated and for my details to be registered in the system. Such a lag delays the response mechanism at least by a day which can surely be avoided. Because of this delay, I was not contacted by any local official during the first 24 hours of my arrival.
The central government and all state governments need to launch similar platforms. An online portal saves considerable resources and allows quicker tracking apparatus. In my flight from New York to New Delhi, all passengers were asked to fill up a form detailing our recent travel history and if we had any of the symptoms associated with Covid-19. I am assuming that somewhere somebody is digitising all this data. Digitisation of physical records is a phenomenal waste of human resources at a time when much of this process can be managed online.
The Narendra Modi government can surely publicise the requirement of all foreign returnees to fill up an online form and then link it with each person’s passport number so that it can be verified during immigration, if the person has submitted his/her details.
An online database also quickens the response time for government officials. Most critically, it allows for quicker and more efficient decision-making. Based on the data gathered from its online portal, the Odisha government announced a lockdown in five districts and eight towns for one week from 22 March. The state was one of the first in India to adopt lockdown to combat the crisis. Its identification of the districts and towns to be put under lockdown was based on the distribution of and concentration of foreign returnees.
This data-driven approach of the Odisha government contrasts sharply with that of the central government, which announced a nation-wide lockdown with four hours of notice without necessarily thinking through it. The Odisha government showed a willingness to not go for uniformity as a convenient tool and was driven by a rational assessment of the situation because it had data on which it could base its decisions.
Once my details were in the system, the local authorities were quick to react and have been persistent in follow ups. I was contacted by the Cuttack Municipal Corporation and was visited by a doctor and a nurse within 48 hours of my arrival. They enquired if I had any symptom and informed me that there will be regular follow ups on my condition during the quarantine period.
I was contacted every day by multiple departments and government officials, enquiring about my health. I got calls from the Covid-19 centre set up by the Odisha government under its health department. I was contacted every day by a doctor from the office of the chief district medical officer (CDMO). Additionally, a health worker from my local ward was also in touch with me throughout the quarantine period. In the initial days of my quarantine, the Inspector in Charge of the local police station contacted me, informing that he had my details. He also visited my residence to confirm my presence and to acquaint himself with me.
In contrast, a colleague of mine who is in home quarantine in Delhi informed me that she has not been contacted by the Delhi government even once. In fact, the Delhi government does not have any details of her residence or her contact number. While the Arvind Kejriwal government is likely to couch it in a positive manner, of trusting the citizens to be responsible, it is an abdication of duties amid a critical period.
The value of consistent monitoring by the government is significant. While those who are responsible are likely to abide by the quarantine regardless of the government’s initiatives, the psychological pressure of being monitored is crucial for those who are prone to ignore the quarantine. Unscheduled visits and phone calls during different hours of the day are effective in increasing the risk perception of being caught for violating the quarantine. This monitoring has also helped the Odisha government in taking action against people violating the quarantine.
While the Odisha government has been proactive in tackling this crisis, the burden of bureaucratic inefficiencies continues to be visible. The officials from the Covid-19 center who were in touch with me every day wasted an inordinate amount of time in confirming the exact same details every single time: name, father’s name, district, address, passport number etc.
They were probably asking for these details to confirm that the person who has registered and the one on the phone is the same, but it was an ineffective and superficial verification. If I made somebody else to answer on my behalf, it would have gone undetected as instead of a specific list being assigned to each official, different persons called each day.
But calls from the office of the CDMO were from the same doctor each day. This ensured that our conversation was not wasted on confirming generic details as the doctor got acquainted with my voice after 5-6 days.
The poster notifying my quarantine was put up outside my residence after 12 days. Such delay defeats the purpose of the poster which is to facilitate awareness and alertness in the neighbourhood.
There was also inconsistency of information in terms of the day from which the duration of the quarantine was to be calculated. One official told me that the duration of quarantine is to include the day of arrival. I was uncomfortable with this as I had arrived around 10 pm in the night and counting the day of arrival in my case would turn my period of quarantine into 13 days instead of 14.
Another official from a different department insisted that the duration was to be calculated from the time of arrival. A simple solution would be to exclude the date of arrival altogether from the calculation. While it will mean that some individuals might be quarantined for 15 days instead of 14, it will also eliminate the risk of some people stepping out after 13 days.
Keeping ahead of the curve
As on 1 April, the total number of confirmed cases in Odisha has not touched double-digits. Most of the measures that I experienced, started when the number of confirmed cases was only two. The Odisha government has been much more active, compared to many other state governments in formulating a preemptive response to the Covid-19 crisis.
It is evident not just in the way the state government is monitoring home quarantine. Odisha is also setting up country’s first dedicated Covid-19 hospitals to deal with the inevitable outbreak. Flattening the proverbial curve has been challenging for most countries around the world. Trying to keep ahead of it may save more lives and in systematically monitoring home quarantine, Odisha is leading by example.
Rangin Tripathy is a faculty at National Law University Odisha and has recently completed his Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellowship from Harvard Law School. Views are personal.