Better late than never

It is welcome news that the Union government is stepping up its battle against the novel coronavirus. India’s public health response had been foundering on account of several shortages till recently. There were not enough people being tested; there was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks available; and there were too few ventilators for those who might proceed to the pneumonia stage of infection. According to the government, it has made strides in recent days towards addressing all these deficiencies. Most of these should have been organised earlier, but better late than never, since there is the real fear that the virus may not disappear soon like some earlier ones and be in the air for many months, through second and third waves of infections.

Although the testing data continues to be somewhat deficient — for example, it is not clear whether the number of individuals tested, as distinct from the number of tests conducted, is being properly reported in the official data — it is clear that the number of tests has been ramped up. Almost 90,000 tests have been conducted as of 9 pm on Sunday, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research. The rate of testing has now reached over 9,000 tests per day and is likely to go up to 20,000 tests per day (it was stuck at 2,000 not so long ago). While this is still below the necessary test penetration, it is a clear improvement. More data will help the government in containing the pandemic and take policy decisions. The scale of the requirements of medical equipment is staggering, but there too the government has been active. According to the reports, the government will need 27 million N95 masks, 15 million PPEs, and 1.6 million diagnostic kits. India has 16,000 ventilators on hand and a further 34,000 have now been ordered. Some of this equipment will have to be procured from abroad. 

It is important for the government to ensure that it builds a sufficient stockpile of these materials. The government seems aware of India’s position on the curve of infections — if the European experience is anything to judge by, the country is just short of explosive growth that comes with cases doubling in less than four or five days. If India is at around 50,000 cases in the next few weeks, then lifting the current lockdown will become a complex decision. It will be difficult to return to complete normalcy, as that would allow suppressed growth to recover and once again become exponential.

The government therefore should also be working on the mechanisms required to ensure social distancing alongside a phased relaxation of the lockdown, perhaps in less affected regions. If air travel resumes after April 15, when the current lockdown ends, all passengers should be tested before they board; perhaps middle seats could be left empty, or every alternate row. Ditto with train travel. Companies should be asked to get their employees to continue working from home to the extent feasible. Social distancing in markets and other public places should stay and group gatherings should remain banned. Non-essential shops should be allowed to open only on one or two days a week. Together with this, the government’s commendable effort at public messaging about the dangers of the virus must continue. At the same time, the economy should be allowed to get back on its feet, not kept in deep freeze.

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