Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘janata curfew’ call was met with a positive response yesterday. Across urban India, roads were largely deserted as people stayed indoors. For sure, the absence of public transport and a shutdown of popular entertainment avenues helped. But the scale of response showed that people are aware of the challenge and the resilience they need to display. It couldn’t have come a day sooner. On Saturday, around 75 new Covid-19 cases were detected. To put it in perspective, the first 50 cases accumulated over 41 days. We may be at the cusp of an exponential spread of the virus.
It augurs well that citizens are willing to make sacrifices to combat the virus. But in places provisions were running short on the eve of the ‘janata curfew’. We are in for a long haul and unless governments can work out effective ways of lessening the scale of disruption, it will be hard to ensure voluntary compliance with social distancing.
States such as Maharashtra, Goa, Bihar and Bengal have all but sealed their borders to prevent flow of people, 75 districts are looking at complete lockdown while transport services like passenger trains, Delhi metro and Chennai metro have been suspended. These are tough but necessary measures to control the incidence of infection. But the job of governments goes much beyond these measures. These now need to be backed by more challenging management of the situation, particularly with regard to keeping essential supplies going – at present there are hospitals reporting shortages of even basics like masks, gloves and sanitisers. In addition, the Centre and states need to coordinate efforts to mitigate the economic hardship, which is hitting the informal sector the hardest. Different states have their unique needs. For example some have to help returning workers rendered jobless by the current situation. The UP government has announced that it will compensate daily wagers with a monthly money transfer. We need to see more such measures which then have to be executed well.
There is a case for the Centre to devise a package to make testing free for everyone, even if it is carried out by private labs. In this warlike situation, red tape associated with targeting should be avoided. India can ill-afford people delaying testing on account of costs. Moreover, the entire economy is facing an income squeeze. Governments should urgently expand their interventions and cover the medical and survival needs of a population displaying grit in trying times.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.