The first Covid-19 case in India was confirmed on 30 January in Thrissur, Kerala. Subsequently, the total number of cases crossed 500 by 23 March, and a surge seemed imminent. Against this backdrop, on 24 March, the Prime Minister announced a nation-wide lockdown for 21 days. We have now spent more than two weeks in the lockdown, while India’s disease load has grown significantly.
The government is facing tough choices regarding what social-distancing policies, and economic support strategies, to pursue beyond 14 April. It is being recognised that not all parts of the country have been impacted uniformly by Covid-19, and voices have emerged calling for the implementation of a more selective lockdown.
In the policy conflict between the scalpel (selective lockdown) and the blunderbuss (general lockdown), the scalpel must surely eventually prevail, but the timing and manner of its use must be guided by adequate information.
Tracking the Covid trends
Over the past week, we have been studying data on the spread of Covid-19 in India – as recorded in the patient database of covid19india.org – and have realised that disease spread has indeed been uneven, both across space and time.
On midnight of 5 April, 323 Covid-afflicted districts (containing 50 per cent of India’s population) had recorded a total of 4,218 cases. This implies an average case-load of 13 per affected district. Given that, we categorised the affected districts into four clusters – heavily-affected districts with more than five times the average case-load, significantly-affected districts with 2.5 to five times the average, moderately-affected ones with 1 to 2.5 times the average, and mildly-affected districts with no more than the average.
We found that the heavily-affected districts include the metro areas of Delhi, Mumbai, Indore, Jaipur, Chennai, and Pune. We had only state-level data for Jammu and Kashmir, and Telangana, which clearly indicated that most of their districts were also heavily-affected by Covid-19. The 20 significantly-affected districts included Agra, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Coimbatore, and Thane. Next, 42 districts were moderately-affected, and finally, 188 districts were mildly-affected.
The unevenness in the spread of Covid-19 is also borne out by the fact that Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, and an additional 16 per cent of all the districts in the rest of India together reported 86 per cent of all Covid cases in the country.
Skewness of disease-load
At the district-level, there was a high correlation between the total number of cases (N) and the total number of people (T) who had contact-transmission from primary carriers (predominantly Indians returning from disease-burdened foreign countries). A high correlation also existed between N and the average rise (R) in the number of infected people in every 24-hours in the one week preceding 5 April. The following table clearly shows the skewness of disease-load (in these different dimensions) towards the more heavily affected districts.
Selective lockdown eventually
Given the uneven spread of Covid-19 across India, the government should understandably be tempted to pursue selective lock downs in different parts of India. We, however, want to record the following concerns.
First. A principal reason behind proposing a selective lockdown is of course to ensure that some economic activity (especially production of essential commodities, and of gainful employment) can carry on in the unaffected/mildly-affected parts of the country.
But the gains arising from these activities (stock of new products and income) have to be distributed over the entire country, without letting the people of an unaffected district co-mingle with those in an affected pocket. The logistics of achieving such concurrent segregation and assimilation will be a challenge. The experience of other countries that have undertaken such selective lockdown needs to be studied carefully.
Second. We should be concerned that the disease spread is accelerating in quite a few districts. Some of it is obviously due to the new sources of the virus like the Tablighi Jamaat at the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi. The fact is that the impact of such clusters and of other potential risks arising due to the movement of migrant labourers is yet to play out. We cannot quite predict how the disease load in already-afflicted districts will increase, and how many new districts will be affected due to such new shocks.
It may be prudent to continue with the current lockdown for at least one more week. This will give the government time to: (i) determine how the new sources will impinge on the uneven spread of Covid-19 in India, and (ii) think through the efficiency goals, the fairness issues, and the precise logistics of implementing selective lockdowns in different parts of the country.
Jyotsna Jalan is a Professor of Economics at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and Co-Director of CTRPFP. Arijit Sen is a Professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. Views are personal.