Critics have said that the PM acted in haste. But here is what happened in my city, New York. On Sunday, March 8, when Columbia University where I serve as a professor decided to replace all in-class teaching by online instruction, the city had just 14 confirmed cases of Covid-19. Till then, the disease had not claimed a single life. Sadly, however, the national and state governments were slow to respond and never went so far as to resort to complete lockdown. The result has been a massive spread of the virus. At the time of writing, it has infected nearly 38,000 New Yorkers and claimed 900 lives.
All the resources and riches at the disposal of the world’s financial capital have proved insufficient to deal with the calamity. It is nobody’s case that absent lockdown, one or more Indian cities would have necessarily gone the New York City way or that the lockdown now precludes it. But it is the case that the lockdown – even one that is as imperfect as we have witnessed so far – will considerably lower the probability of largescale spread of the infection.
And those who choose to follow it faithfully, as my children and my wife and I have done voluntarily in our respective locations, will likely be spared the wrath of the virus. They would also do some social good by avoiding adding to the burden of an already overburdened healthcare system.
The biggest advantage India enjoys over other countries at this stage is that at 1,251 as of Monday, its Covid-19 cases are small in number. Indeed, given that many states in India are comparable to or larger than most countries, the relevant unit of analysis for it is individual states. Seen this way, at over 200 cases in Maharashtra and Kerala, only two states, at the time of writing, have cases going into (low) triple digits. In other 25 states and Union territories (UTs) with one or more cases, the figure is still in the double or single digit. Nine states and UTs have no reported cases at all.
To be sure, the number of identified cases in India is below actual ones because asymptomatic patients go untested. But we can gain an approximate idea of the “true” number of cases by relating the number of deaths attributable to the virus, which is known with precision in real time, to the death rate per 100 patients. As on March 30, the number of deaths due to the virus stood at 32 nationally and it was in single digit in every state. Applying the death rate of 1.6 per 100 patients in the well-managed case of South Korea, these deaths imply a total of 2,000 Covid-19 cases. This figure for India’s size still suggests that infections are limited to clusters offering excellent prospects for containment.
Some have argued, somewhat insidiously, that the lockdown will not work for the large population of slum dwellers who live in tight spaces. But the high density in slums makes the case for a lockdown stronger, not weaker. Denser a habitation, greater is the benefit from keeping infection out of it. The trick is to isolate those contracting infection quickly and placing them under quarantine in outside facilities. Leaving residents to enter and exit the habitations unhindered and roam within them freely would be a recipe for super-fast spread of the infection.
It is wishful thinking that the battle against such a potent enemy, which can strike anywhere and at any time, can be won without hardship. While the government must do everything within its power to assist the poor, especially those at risk of losing their livelihood and shelter, citizens also need to understand that the government lacks the magic wand that can make all hardship go away. This is a time to cooperate, not confront.
In the coming weeks, in addition to helping the vulnerable cope with the hardships of the lockdown and minimising the damage to long-term prospects of the economy, the government also needs to equip itself for the fight against the virus once the lockdown is discontinued. Until a definite cure for Covid-19 and vaccine against coronavirus are found, which are likely to take up to a year, the threat of the virus will loom. An obvious aspect of this preparation is plentiful supply of corona test kits and N95 masks. Post-lockdown, India should be able to do what South Korea did to win the war against the virus.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Columbia University