Unlocking India | Business Standard Editorials

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com

Reopening essential; time for awareness campaigns

The government on Saturday issued further instructions on the national lockdown, which has been in effect with various levels of stringency since the end of March. The salient issue is that, with effect from June 8, most restrictions in areas outside designated containment zones for the coronavirus will be lifted, and many normal activities will be permitted. These include hospitality services and shopping malls. Importantly, the Centre has advised that there should be “unrestricted” inter-state movements of persons and goods; however, this will be subject to state government decisions. Giving power where it is due is a welcome move in a structurally diverse country such as India. So all states need not unlock in the same manner or at the same rate. There should only be transparent agreements on key metrics so that the scope for political brownie points is minimised.

Giving consideration to livelihood and economic sustainability was overdue, and it is welcome that good sense has prevailed in this respect. However, questions can and will be asked about timing, nevertheless, and on how the policymakers’ calculations may have changed. After all, India now has 173,000 cases and over 5,000 deaths. Further, the daily rate of increase in confirmed cases continues to set records. About 8,000 were registered on the very day of the government’s notification, Saturday — another new record in terms of single-day increases. The government needs to be more open about its strategy to live with the pandemic. Clearly activity cannot return to the pre-virus “normal”, given that some form of social distancing will continue to be imposed. Already in areas that have a concentration of Covid-19 cases — Mumbai city in particular — are suffering some strain on hospital facilities. The original argument that this strain cannot in any way be allowed to spread to areas of India under-served by tertiary care continues to apply.

In effect, the responsibility has now been passed to state governments and district administrations to identify localities that host outbreaks, declare them containment zones, and put in place the restrictions on movement into and out of them. They will also have to determine the regulations underlying the resumption of normal life. But the fact is that without sufficient testing this continues to be a tough ask. Testing in India remains at an abysmally low level — 2,500 tests per million, one explanation of why the detected case rate in India is also so low. The reason for the lockdown was partly to put in place mechanisms for dealing with the pandemic, including expanding testing facilities. The government should now explain whether testing levels are in fact satisfactory and as envisioned at the start of the lockdown, and how those fit into its broader strategy to contain virus breakouts.

State governments must now rise to the occasion, and put in place granular and well-publicised control measures. As the public returns to the streets and mingles in workplaces, constant reminders of the danger and education about the nature of the virus’ spread in vernacular languages and innovative ways are a must. The period of strict control is clearly at an end; now India moves to a period which depends upon community and individual co-operation and data collection and analysis. This will strain state capacity, but there may be no option.

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