India was amongst the first countries to impose a country-wide lockdown even when the number of COVID-19 cases in the country were in single digits. The strategy was keeping in mind the limited capacity of India’s health care system. The Indian government chose a two pronged strategy to reduce the spread of the epidemic. While on one hand it chose to implement social distancing with a full country-wide lockdown, on the other, it is ramped up capacities to find, isolate, test, treat and trace COVID-19 cases. As the capacity to test the whole population does not exist, authorities attempt to track those who have been in contact with COVID-19 positive patients, test them, and isolate them.
The India wide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will give the Indian health system a breather. It will reduce the pace with which COVID-19 will spread in India. Reducing this speed, or flattening the curve is necessary if we hope hospitals in India are able to cope with people needing treatment. The lockdown buys us time while the world finds cures and vaccines for the virus. Countries that did not lock down early, choosing to keep the economy going, are doing so now after much loss of lives and livelihoods and have had to announce even bigger fiscal packages to protect the economy. Italy, UK and US with much more advanced and pervasive health systems compared to ours are losing lives because of they did not lock down early. The worst of both worlds for any country today is when it can neither prevent loss of lives nor that of livelihoods.
As a first step, to prepare the health care system, the government announced a Corona fiscal package of Rs 15,000 crore for manufacture and purchase of equipment, testing kids, medication, personal protective equipment, isolation beds, ICUs, etc. With limited testing capabilities in India, we do not know accurately how many infected cases we currently have in India. Ensuring the safety of health care staff is critical. There is a huge administrative challenge in making adequate safety preparations.
A big challenge is to know where the testing kits and hospital facilities may be needed. The spread of the virus depends on living spaces, weather conditions, health, age, immunity and other unknowns. Models can give us rough estimates of how many people will be sick and where. This means that the requirements of the health system are unknown.
The information available to policy makers is constantly changing. This makes the planning and logistics even more challenging. For example, as we learnt a week after the lockdown, there had been a large congregation in Nizamuddin in Delhi where there were COVID-19 positive cases. People who attended the event went back to their states and would be spreading the virus there. This means more medical equipment may be needed in many of the areas the attendees went to, than originally planned. It is a huge challenge to continuously monitor and revise logistical arrangements according to constantly changing needs.
In the meantime, the government has to ensure that essential supply chains work and food and medicines are available to the public. Steps are being taken everyday to solve problems as they arise. Curfew passes for essential service providers, transport are being given. Food and quarantine facilities for homeless and migrant workers and are being set up as the situation demands.
The government has set up 10 taskforces to solve these problems. While some people suggest that the planning should have come before the announcement of lockdown, this criticism does not take into account the speed with which the virus is growing. As long as we ensure that the central government, state governments, NGOs, civil society steps in so that no one goes hungry and lives are not lost, we can bounce back and fight the virus.
The PMs announcements, the Janata curfew, the utensil clanging to salute COVID warriors like our healthcare workers, as well as the lock down has increased public awareness about the virus successfully. As the government eases the lockdown in sectors that provide essential services or in places where risks are low over the next few weeks, this increased awareness of how the virus spreads should help India keep the infection down. Social distancing is our best bet for protecting the lives and health of the population.
(The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal)