The crucial question before the Indian Govt is whether the nationwide lockdown be ended after the three-week period announced on March 24 by the Prime Minister expires on April 14, or should it be continued thereafter?
This is the Catch-22 situation which the authorities in India are facing. Some States are already putting pressure on Narendra Modi to extend the lockdown while Odisha has gone ahead and extended its shutdown till April 30.
The Prime Minsiter will take a call on extending the shut down in other States on April 11. So we may consider the alternatives.
The consequences of lifting the lockdown:
Ending the lockdown may result in a huge surge in corona virus cases and many more deaths. Till now the number of infected people in India is 6,771 and we have seen 228 deaths so far.
Globally, the effect of the pandemic has been felt more by the developed nations and the number of cases worldwide has touched 16,05,277 with 95,739 deaths.
Nations are fighting over medicines they think can help to stop the march of the Coronavirus as it is universally accepted that as yet there is no vaccine or cure for the disease (though research is going on at a war footing worldwide).
Till now the only way we know how to stop the spread of the virus in through social distancing. The 21-day lockdown in India forced people to observe social distancing and this meant that a Corona-positive person could not infect others.
This enforced social distancing will end when the shutdown is lifted as people will start meeting each other in schools, factories, offices, business houses, media houses, courts, malls, restaurants, cinema halls, religious places, trains, buses and so on, thereby spreading the disease.
If there is anything that we know about the Coronavirus with certainty is the fact that it is highly infectious and spreads rapidly when social distancing is not maintained. A single person may infect half a dozen others and each one of these may infect half a dozen more and so on, till thousands of people are sick. This is like a chain reaction in an atomic bomb.
So, if the Government lifts the lockdown, it will be endangering millions of people who will start going about their business as usual, because even if one or two in the crowd is a COVID-19 vector, they will set off the chain-reaction of infection, till it spreads to lakhs of people.
The biggest problem that India is facing is that there is little medical testing in the country for the Coronavirus as we simply do not have enough testing kits/equipment and so on, to meet the requirement of 1.3 billion people. Hence, it is difficult for us to plug the gaps and it is easy for persons infected with the Coronavirus to fall through the cracks as the disease is asymptomatic for the first 15 days.
It is because of the fear of an explosion in Coronavirus cases that States are reluctant to lift the lockdown. While Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao is in favour of extending the shut down in his State, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Assam, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have indicated that they would not fully lift the restrictions after April 14. In fact, in UP 15 districts have been sealed as they have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots.
The consequences of not lifting the lockdown:
To continue with the shutdown may result in poor people dying of hunger in large numbers as they are deprived of food, work and money, like the immigrant workers in cities who had to trek hundreds of kilometres on foot to their villages.
A whopping 80-90 per cent of Indian workers are in the unorganised sector of the economy and these are daily wage earners, having no security of tenure. The shutdown has hit these workers and their families the hardest.
Reports are coming in from rural areas that farmers cannot sell their produce as there is no transport available to take it to the wholesale markets, besides the fact that no one is coming to them. Hence their produce is often perishing unsold.
Also, this is harvest time but the labourers who used to work fields are not available, as they mostly used to come from towns or nearby districts, but are unable to do so because of the lockdown. Hence, farmers will suffer major harvest losses.
The police force seems to have become baton-happy these days and there are reports of cops beating people found outside their homes, no matter what their reason for doing so.
Consequently, people are afraid to step out of their houses. Many village shops have run out of stock as shopowners cannot replenish their goods. So people cannot buy essentials like medicines and groceries.
Business houses are suffering as the economy, which was already in a bad shape prior to the lockdown, is crumbling even further. International exports have taken a steep dive.
Huge infrastructure projects are at a standstill due to the lockdown. Many industries and sectors have closed down putting lakhs of workers out of jobs.
Government must strike a balance:
Article 19(1)(b) of the Constitution grants citizens the right to assemble peacefully, Article 19(1)(d) grants them the right to move freely throughout India and Article 19(1(g) grants them the right to practice any profession, trade or vocation.
No doubt these rights are subject to reasonable restrictions, but it is well settled that for a restriction to be valid, it must not be excessive. While short lockdowns would be valid, long shutdowns would not be good for the people or the economy.
Man is a social being. Human beings cannot survive for long in isolation since we are dependent on others for our existence. Robinson Crusoe may sound great in a novel, but he is a fictional character. As the English poet John Donne said 'No man is an island'.
Hence social distancing may be possible for short periods but not for long ones, as that may do more harm than good. India is thus caught in a catch-22 situation, with hard choices to make.