By Gyan Pathak
India is all set to change its COVID-19 response strategy. Lockdown phase-5 will be applicable only to the places where social distancing cannot be maintained, such as schools, colleges, cinema halls, religious places or events, and very busy market places. All the modes of public transports may be allowed with certain conditions. All other economic activities will be allowed except in the COVID-19 hotspots, where containment measures will be more stringent, in view of the expressed opinions of experts who expect COVID-19 most likely to peak up around beginning of July 2020 when cases of infections may rise to over 600,000 with around 18000 deaths.
Government is carefully watching both the COVID-19 and the lockdown crises. Health system has been ramped up to a great extent but it may not be able to handle the situation when it really peaks up in the first week of July. That will also be the time of seasonal diseases caused by other viruses. The patients of other diseases also require medical help. In such a situation, it is most likely that India’s health systems may be overwhelmed, and there will be severe shortage of medical care staff, doctors and nurses, hospital beds with or without oxygen or ventilators, or ICU facilities. Government is therefore left with no option but to make containment measures more stringent in the hotspots or the areas with COVID-19 patients.
However, the lifting up blanket lockdown with more relaxation has also become necessary now to revive the economy and the save people from dying of hunger. It is for this reason lockdown phase-5, if implemented at all, will have much more relaxation compared to lockdown phase-4. Lockdown phase -5 is felt necessary to be announced for psychological reasons. If government announces end of the lockdown, majority of the Indians, may be misled by the idea that the danger is now over, and they will come out of their home in large numbers, which may become unmanageable. Majority in the government therefore feel that lockdown phase-5 should also be announced, but with larger relaxation for non-infectious areas and more stringent containment measures in the areas with infection.
It may be mentioned here that the government of India have set up over a dozen groups to monitor the COVID-19 related crisis. Few of the empowered groups have already recommended that government should now lift up lockdown except for those activities where social distancing measures are not possible to be implemented. The panels have already submitted their reports to the government on which a decision will be taken before May 31, when the lockdown 4 will end.
Two of the government panels were tasked with two areas – managing medical emergencies; and availability of hospitals, isolation and quarantine facilities. The recommendations of these two panels are important because they are dealing directly with the health crisis. Since they believe that India is now in a position to successfully tackle the health crisis, the country can lift blanket lockdown. However, they have also recommended continuation and even scaling up of containment measures in the worst-hit areas while allowing other places to open up. They have also recommended that it is now time to lift all lockdown curbs on people and activities except keeping them for schools, colleges, cinema halls, religious places and the like. The group on managing medical emergency is chaired by NITI Aayog member Vinod Paul, and the group on availability of hospitals, isolation, quarantine facilities, disease surveillance, testing and critical care is chaired by CM Mishra, the secretary of environment, government of India. Both the groups have suggested that there should not be any nationwide lockdown now. Rather government should adopt more aggressive strategy of finding, tracing, testing, and treating the patients, particularly in the areas of infection.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed in details the lockdown 5 strategy with the Home Minister Amit Shah on Friday morning just less than 48 hours before the expiry of the lockdown 4 tenure. Shah briefed the PM on his discussions with the Chief Ministers in the last two days. The idea of the ruling regime is that by involving the States in the next lockdown strategy, the Centre will be in a position to pass on the buck to the States if the decision boomerangs. The States are desperate to open up the economic activities to the maximum extent possible while taking care that the coronavirus does not surge in a big way due to relaxations. That is a daunting task but the nation has to face it.
Government of India and all the ministries are reviewing the situation with the states. The crisis created by the lockdown is also being studied along with the impact of the relief package of Rs 21 lakh crore. In the Ministry of Finance and the RBI, there is a section of officials who believe that our banking system is already undergoing a severe crisis, and is not in a position to push the money into the market as a loan. Therefore, the overreliance on banks for quick delivery of loans to the business, industries, farmers, retailers and other individuals is misplaced. Government will have to review the whole package, rework them, or perhaps will have to announce fresh package to pep up the economy by trying to reviving consumption and demand. (IPA Service)