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Experts stand divided as govt hints at extending Covid-19 lockdown

Topics Coronavirus

File picture of a migrant worker from Madhya Pradesh carrying a child as he walks along the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, following the coronavirus lockdown | (PTI Photo)
In a week’s time, the 21-day lockdown which came into effect on March 24-25 midnight comes to a close. Meanwhile the number of Covid-19 cases in India continues to rise. As of Wednesday morning, official data showed that India has 5,194 cases with 149 deaths. The government now admits that India is between stage-II and stage-III of the pandemic, with limited community spreading.

It is in this context that the central government has to decide whether or not to extend the nationwide lockdown beyond next week. A number of states and public health experts have asked for the lockdown to continue till April 30 at least. Others are advocating that parts of the economy be opened up, and the Centre and states come up with a detailed plan on a phased lifting of the lockdown.

“What might be required is a more strategic approach. An extension of the lockdown might cause a major social and economic impact. You might have to look at a graduated lifting of lockdown, where you do it in parts and see if people are still able to take precautions and follow social distancing norms,” said Anant Bhan, a medical doctor and public health policy expert.

Bhan said that the aim of the lockdown was to provide a limited time period to the authorities in which public health measures could be ramped up. “If you are not able to do it in 21 days, there is no guarantee that (another) 14 days will make that much of a difference. You have to utilise that time effectively. The virus is not going away in 21 days,” Bhan said.

Former Chief Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu wrote in the Mint newspaper earlier this week that once the 21-day period is over, it is important to take steps to unwind in a measured way and have more targeted lockdowns. “Following South Korea, we need to locate regions and pockets which have to be kept under close watch and locked down, with others being opened up with rules of behaviour in place—masks, social distancing, quarantining those unwell—so that the rest of India can get back to producing goods and services, and help the locked-down areas. We have to start some of our domestic flights and trains, with new rules,” Basu wrote.

Meanwhile, in a meeting with the Opposition parties on Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reported to have said that none of the state chief ministers he spoke to had advised against the extension of the lockdown.

After the meeting, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Congress’ Ghulam Nabi Azad said around 80 per cent of the political leaders who attended the meeting with Modi advocated an extension.

The Prime Minister and the central government will take a final decision after his videoconference meeting with Chief Ministers of states on April 11.

Meanwhile, rumours have started spreading thick and fast in various parts of the country about the extension. On Wednesday, after news reports and tweets by journalists that either some or all parts of 15 districts in Uttar Pradesh will be sealed off completely, there was panic buying and all safety, health and social distancing norms were disregarded.

Bhan said sealing off certain areas while opening up rest of the country is not a sustainable approach. “Containment can happen for a brief period of time. You also need to have a smarter strategy. There are economic and social implications,” he said.

What is clear that unlike the announcement of the lockdown, which was done unilaterally by the centre without much discussion with the states, the decision on whether to extend it or not, and the contours of a detailed plan, will have to be done in conjunction with the states. Else there might be another social, economic and humanitarian jolt.

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