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Unmake (Covid-19) in India: The fight throughout

The ‘heavy-handed’ pre-emptive approach was right there from the start, when India became among the first few to officially curtail travel to and from China. An upset China officially protested through diplomatic channels, even pressuring New Delhi to reverse its decision. India later faced similar pressure from Seoul when it placed travel restrictions.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Mar 23, 2020, 11.42 PM IST
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India’s fight against the Covid-19 outbreak has been unique. Clampdowns here have actually come much earlier than in most other countries, including China, which was uncharacteristically late with its tough measures, thus, failing to contain the eventual spread of the virus. But the real test for India on ‘community transmission’ has just begun.

And, once again, GoI has responded by frontloading the tough measures. The extraordinary decisions of the last few days — from the national ‘janata curfew’ on Sunday to initiating lockdowns in several states — stand out largely because no other big country affected by the virus took such drastic steps in anticipation of ‘Stage 3’.

The ‘heavy-handed’ pre-emptive approach was right there from the start, when India became among the first few to officially curtail travel to and from China. An upset Beijing officially protested through diplomatic channels, even pressuring New Delhi to reverse its decision. India later faced similar pressure from Seoul when it placed travel restrictions on South Korea.

India went ahead, despite the fact that Beijing was able to use its clout to bring considerable pressure on global institutions to not paint China as the villain. There’s a strong view in New Delhi that the World Health Organisation (WHO) was rather delayed in declaring Covid-19 a ‘pandemic’. Which is why individual States like India went ahead with their own measures. But as former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld had once framed it, these were still the ‘known knowns’ from an Indian standpoint.

At this stage, India evidentially knew the source of the problem, and took the call to contain it through a clampdown on travel. One can argue that unlike the China case, India may have been blindsided by the extent of the problem in Italy, and in Europe as a whole. But when you look at the advisories, the clampdown on travel came by early March. The problem, perhaps, was those who slipped through quarantine and later turned Covid-positive. This, to use Rumsfeldian frame again, triggered the next phase of the ‘known unknowns’.

Here, GoI was aware that there were many potential Covid-positive individuals who had entered the country, but had no way to locate or track them.

Tailor-Made Solution

One option was to adopt the South Korean model and go for large-scale Covid-19 testing of people with symptoms to identify affected members of the population.

But unlike South Korea, there are severe limitations to India’s healthcare infrastructure, in terms of both quarantining and treatment of a large population. In keeping with its realities, India seemingly dovetailed its pre-emptive strategy with an attempt to identify the severe cases, which were in need of hospitalisation.

What this effectively meant is ‘no testing’ unless the symptoms persist, or worsen, over a length of time. The logic appears to have been based on the data that the majority of affected people happen to recover by themselves. Mass social campaigns were put out with the central message that anyone with flu symptoms ought to go on self-quarantine.

And if the situation deteriorated, they could go to designated facilities. But how do you prevent a population unaware that they are infected from passing on the virus? That is, now, the actual ‘unknown’. What India may have achieved, with its preemptive clampdowns and selective testing approach, was to, perhaps, delay the onset of a larger spread.

Yet, it now stands at the cusp of a bigger challenge. The next phase is the fight against the ‘unknown unknowns’. And, again, GoI has decided not to wait until India enters ‘Stage 3’ community transmission to take its tough measures. So, we have a lockdown in place and a gradual expansion of testing and treatment sites. Two elements stand out from a policy perspective.

One, the desire to actively pre-empt — and not just prevent. Two, take a conscious call to, as far possible, not let Covid-19 overrun India’s comparatively modest healthcare capabilities that, as it is, struggles to meet other requirements. Politically, India has sought to stay away from invoking national emergency provisions, and to work within the available frame, in tune with constitutionally enshrined federal principles.

So, allowing state governments to take charge of enforcement of lockdown is an indication that the Centre is keen to ensure that the existing democratic systems work.

Right Approach, As of Now


But, as is with ‘unknown unknowns’, no political leadership or policymaker is certain of what lies ahead. What the pre-emptive clampdown has sought to do is to work through a construct that whatever the unknown number of people infected, at least these measures will help reduce the possibility for those who are, so far, not affected, so as to contract the infection.

Either way, what’s clear is that India’s fight against coronavirus has entered its most critical phase. One that will eventually determine the efficacy of the Indian approach. And whether there actually can be an ‘Indian way’ out of this mass pandemic.
(Catch all the Business News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on The Economic Times.)
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