New Delhi, Sep 16, 202: With a family planning programme in 1951, India became one of the first few countries to give population control a space in its policy-making. The policy resulted in health workers reaching yet untouched areas of the country. But the barest of healthcare facility meant to control population over the decades actually functioned as the family expansion programme.
The same seems to have happened with India’s Covid-19 strategy. When Indian states began coronavirus lockdowns, India became only a few countries besides China to adopt this strategy. When India went for a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, it actually locked more people than China ever did to contain Covid-19, which originated in that country.
India’s lockdown was described as the strictest in the world. The national lockdown came almost unannounced, and it was total. That the lockdown itself was successful is proven from the official figures of GDP contraction rate for the April-June quarter.
The factories, offices, shops and other businesses remained closed. Lakhs of people did not earn anything. So, they did not spend even on the essentials. The result was massive loss of business activities and hence a negative 23.9 per cent GDP growth rate.
SIDE-EFFECTS OF LOCKDOWN
The primary intended objective of the strictest coronavirus lockdown was to break the cycle of Covid-19 spread. A GDP contraction was anticipated and acceptable only as a necessary evil byproduct of the coronavirus lockdown. However, as it is evident now, the lockdown only delayed what was debatably avoidable.
Now, the policy response of nationwide lockdown to Covid-19 pandemic may be blamed on some faulty models that predicted the death of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus over a course of two weeks if there was no public activity and the patients - and Covid-19 clusters - were isolated during the period.
At that time, the Modi government appeared to be going for an extra week of lockdown as a cushion policy.
"Life over livelihood" was the guiding philosophy behind the lockdown policy response. "Jaan hai to jahaan hai," was the mantra that Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about.
What this lockdown did among other things was to cause a shift in policy of the government to -- "jaan bhi, jahaan bhi" (life with livelihood). In this adjusted policy response, the government’s focus hugely sharpened on economy, having seen the consequences of lockdown.
So, here India stands with over 50 lakh Covid-19 cases - the second country in the world to reach this dubious milestone. If the current trend of Covid-19 spread continues by early October, India is likely to overtake the US (currently 67 lakh cases) as the country with highest Covid-19 cases.
INDIA’S JOURNEY TO 50 LAKH COVID-19 CASES
Every progressing month has seen aggravating Covid-19 situation in India. September is particularly bad having seen over 13 lakh cases - constituting around 27 per cent of all cases recorded till date in India.
India recorded its first 10 lakh cases in 167 days - much slower than the other two worst-affected countries, the US (98 days) and Brazil (114 days).
Afterwards, India has beaten them in the embarrassing race. India added each of next 10 lakh cumulative cases in 21, 16, 13 and 11 days. The US added its final 10 batches of 10 lakh cases in 16 days each. Brazil’s fastest 10 lakh case count happened in 23 days.
The surge in SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infections in September has taken the active Covid-19 cases to over 10 lakh mark. Additionally, India is now recording highest number of Covid-19 deaths daily.
So, what went wrong for India?
Testing, tracing and treatment are the mantras to fight Covid-19. All the agencies including World Health Organisation (WHO) and health experts agree on this. India’s lockdown was also meant to ramp up its testing and treatment capabilities.
India improved its testing capacity but not to match the size of its population exposed to Covid-19 threat. The testing has always remained a constraint in every state. Second problem with the testing strategy was high dependence on rapid antigen testing.
The problem with the rapid antigen testing is that their reliability could be as low as 50-60 per cent. The most glaring example was seen earlier this week during the Delhi Assembly session.
Two of the MLAs attended the session after they were declared Covid-19 negative in the rapid test. When they were in the middle of the one-day special session, their RT-PCR test results came declaring them Covid-19 positive. At the time, they were attending the session along with other MLAs including Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
The ICMR says the RT-PCR test is the gold standard of testing. Still for most states, the rapid antigen testing account for up to 80 per cent of all tests.
Given the unreliability of the rapid antigen tests, experts have been calling for urgent need to shift India’s testing strategy to RT-PCR. This needs massive ramping up in the RT-PCR capabilities.
HIDDEN APPROACH TO KEEP COVID-19 NUMBERS LOW
Many states have different approach when it comes to recording and reporting Covid-19 numbers. States such as Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha have come under sharp criticism over their non-aggressive testing approach.
People in some states have complained that despite a member in their family having been reported Covid-19 positive, the local authorities declined to collect samples from others who were in contact with the patient. In West Bengal, many Covid-19 deaths were counted for long as non-Covid-19 deaths as the government refused to count co-morbidity cases as coronavirus fatality.
Similarly, in Bihar, the government’s focus has been on preparing for the upcoming state election. The workforce earlier deployed in counter-Covid-19 programmes are now engaged in election-related duty. In many areas, the local authorities have refused to collect sample for Covid-19 testing citing lack of resources.
A man creating awareness about how to protect oneself from coronavirus infection. (Photo: PTI)
FISCAL DEFICIT OVER LIFE
Finally, the government’s focus in the past couple of months has been on unlocking the businesses across the country. This is bringing out more and more people out in the public.
Loss of employment to many during strict lockdown phases meant that a vast majority does not have enough money with them to buy the essentials. So, they cannot spend on masks, and sanitisers. People coming out in the public find it almost impossible to follow social distancing protocol in a densely populated country like India.
The government has cited its own fiscal compulsions for not doling out more freebies to the poor - such as direct cash transfer to their bank accounts in order to keep them inside their homes. Many economists including former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan have recommended this strategy.
The government fears that its fiscal deficit will go up sharply making its financial standing vulnerable creating a fresh set of problems. This leaves the government with the only alternative to let people come out of their homes and make the country’s businesses run.
Not surprising that with the progress of unlock phases, the cases have surged exponentially. Daily cases are in the touching range of 1 lakh pushing the cumulative figure to over 50 lakh. It is high time the government and agencies involved in strategising fight against the Covid-19 pandemic have a relook at it.