That the country observed a lockdown when confronted with an impending disaster, was indeed unprecedented and essential, but also inadequate as a response. States, political parties and different sections of the population co-operated wholeheartedly with the suggestion of the prime minister. However limited and inadequate this national curfew may be, it has produced some results.
Firstly, it helped hammering home the gravity of the situation and urgency among the people. There is only one way to take on this pandemic, which is preventon – at least until a treatment is invented. And prevention in its turn means hygiene and avoidance of social contact thereby breaking the chain of virus transmission. This curfew can be said to have helped people get famliar to some extent with locking out and keeping the distance – something they are not used to so far. It also sent out a message that at the face of a challenge, the country will stand together.
Other countries have shown evidence of how contact ban and alertness will be effective in controlling Covid-19. Wuhan in China is a case in point where, althouogh it took several weeks resulting from the initial laxity, they showed the way with strict cut-off of social contacts. Countries that have hands-on experience of the SARS (Severe Actue Respitarory Syndrome) infection during 2002-03, i.e. Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and Hong kong, are able to hold out now thanks to breaking the transmission chain right from the outset. On the contrary, countries that showed less vigilance like South Korea, Iran and Italy paid the price for the slackness with higher number of infections. The lesson is clear: avoidance of contact and lockdown with as stringent steps as possible, do deliver results. But it is also crucial to decide which spheres to be subjected to the lockdown, its extent and duration. It is ideal if individual and communities co-operate on their own. But can one be sure of that?
Given that India is prone to more infectious conditions, there needs to be both speed and humanity in facing it. Even the prime minister's call for curfew was a belated over-reaction. There are some who see it as a prelude to and preparation for more prolonged and severe restrictions. But it was after 50 days from the detection of the disease in the country that the prime minister made his first move against Covid with a 14-hour long people's curfew. The difference made by this long gap is no small. Although leaders of the government console us that the country has not entered Phase Three with social transmission of the virus, on the flip side it is a serious matter that unlike other countries, tests are not conducted far and wide here. Authorities are unaware of how many thousands are around who may be carriers, but without symptoms. In South Korea, because of initial lack of vigilance, hundreds of people got infected, but soon without any further delay, testing facilities were opened all over the country. That helped them detect the disease carriers and those who had contact with them, and all of them were isolated. Through this, they checked the virus from going out of hand. In India, in the crucial first weeks not only the people but even the central government were not as alert as they should have been. Although a one-day curfew would be no substitute for this lapse, the consolation is that it helped the public to be convinced and convice others of the seriousness of the matter. At the same time, it needs to be ensured that people do not get the wrong notion that everything got solved with a home-bound stretch of 14 hours. Wasn’t it imperative to foresee and check the rush and melee in trains and the markets on the eve of the curfew? When guest workers from other states flocked en masse to their native villages from Mahafashtra, where a fifth of the national population live, who could guarantee that they were not carriers of the virus?
What is needed in India to prevent the virus spread, with a high risk of the pandemic wreaking havoc, is not only observing a day. Facilities and machinery for lab tests should be augmented urgently. So also for hospital amenities and equipment. Groups of people may be able to tap on vessels and thank health workers. But, it is upto the government to see that their morale does not sag while working under servere stress. The required PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should be made available to them. Apparatus are urgently needed in large numbers, including ventillators. The benefits of the higher emphasis given to public health are all too visible in Kerala. At the same time, across the country, the allocation for health sector in the national budet is dismally insufficient: we stand a 184th among 191 countries. Covid-19 crisis demands of us to reset our priorities. The call by the government on the people for their participation in the fight against the virus, was accepted by them in its full spirit. The government has a corresponding resposibility to appreciate the hardship of the people and work in line with that. When the population is asked to shut down and sit at home due to Covid thereby incurring financial and other losses, there should be mechanisms in place to compensate the poor for their losses. When the people have to stay united, moves that divide them - like on the citizenship front, sould be entirely dropped. The internet controls in Kashmir, which would stymie even the disease prevention operations, should be summarily removed. The people have declared loud to the government that India is one. Let the government too prove that it is so.