The question cannot be evaded as to whether lockdown was a success or failure. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that the lockdown is a failure because the number of those testing positive has increased at the end of the formal lockdown on June 1 is certainly not a fair assessment. The lockdown was never meant to keep the numbers down though the government, including the joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Lav Agarwal had strenuously argued that India will not need to experience the peak because the lockdown is meant to contain the numbers. It was a false argument, in terms of fact as well as of logic. The lockdown was meant to slow down the pace at which Covid-19 spread and enable the administration in the meanwhile to ramp up the medical facilities to cope with the increase in numbers.
The question then is whether the central and the state governments have expanded the medical facilities not just in terms of hospital beds, intensive care units (ICUs), oxygen masks and ventilators. The evidence points to the fact that the governments have been taking ad hoc measures, meeting the exigencies of the day instead of looking to the time in near future when the numbers of the Covid-19 patients was likely to grow exponentially as it has done since the beginning of May and now into June. And by all counts, the numbers are likely to increase in the months to come, stretching to the end of the year. There has been a knee-jerk response from the administration at all levels, and it is unsurprising that this is so.
The ad hoc-ism is reflected in the one-hour-twenty-minute meeting held on June 14 by Union Home Minister Amit Shah with Delhi Chief Minister Amit Shah, Delhi Lt. Governor Anil Baijal and the three municipal corporations of Delhi to tackle the issue of the increasing number of Covid-19 positive cases. This was something that should have been done immediately, or even much before, the clampdown of the lockdown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 25. And even now, the decisions arrived at the emergency meeting on Sunday smacks of ad hocism. They want to double and treble the number of tests and convert 500 rail coaches into Covid-19 care centres. There is still no clarity as to the number of people who would require hospital care.
No one in the government is willing to deal with the issue of the number of Covid-19 cases in a realistic manner because there is no transparency about the means used to estimate the numbers. Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia put the figure of the Covid-19 cases at 5.5 lakh by the end of July without revealing as to who did the exercise of estimating the numbers and what was the rationale behind the figure. Then we have the estimate of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-constituted Operations Research Group that the lockdown has delayed the peaking of the pandemic, and that the peak is likely to be reached in mid-November. But the ICMR is not willing to own the findings.
There should have been rigorous exercise of estimating the future trajectory of Covid-19, but it seems that ICMR is acting in spurts and there is no sustained analysis of Covid-19 as it has unfolded from January 30 when the first case appeared in Kerala to the middle of June when the number of those infected at 3.32 lakh on June 14 while the study had put the figure of 5,29,872 for May 6. While statistical estimates and modelling are necessary exercises, there was also the need to assess the real time graph of the increase in the number of infections. The most crucial fact is the number of tests that have been carried so far. According to the ICMR website, the number is 60,84, 286 as on the morning of June 15. There is a connection between the number of tests and that of infections. If 3.54 lakh infected cases have come to light after testing nearly 58 lakh samples – the number of tests is based on samples and not on persons, and some people have been tested more than twice, first when they tested either positive or negative and again when they either tested negative or positive – it becomes a slightly tricky task of estimating the number of infected persons. But this is an issue that can be resolved by arriving at approximate number of tests to get the total figure of infections at any point of time. The ICMR’s sero-survey of 26,400 people in the first phase in the first month after the lockdown showed that 0.73 persons showed antibodies that pointed to exposure to the Covid-19 infection. Experts are hesitating to say whether the presence of antibodies is a sure sign that Covid-19 had passed through remains undecided.
It should be recognized straightaway that the doctors and the medical researchers are unsure about Covid-19, its intensity, its spread and its impact. The scientists are grappling with many unknowns. It can perhaps be argued that the governments at this point are following the tentative guidelines that the medical experts community is coming up with from time to time, and that the ad hoc nature of governmental response follows from the uncertainties of the state of knowledge that we have about Covid-19. It is however assumed that governments must act in these matters with the worst-case scenario in this context, and it could very well be the case that the worst may not come about. If that be indeed the case, we must prepare for the worst and hope for the best, however cliched it may sound. And to avoid confusion and the resulting anxiety in the public mind, governments and the medical experts must share the information, with the caveat that it is open to revisions and corrections. You cannot manage a pandemic, which is a national medical emergency, without taking the people into confidence. The governments and the political leaders are instead trying the old tricks of holding back what they consider to be sensitive and alarmist information to control possible public panic. It is a short-sighted Machiavellian ruse. It does not work. Sharing information is an imperative of a democratic society.