When we look back at how India handled the coronavirus, the decisions to repeatedly extend the lockdown after April 14 will rank among the worst in Independent India – right up there with the choice of a Constitution that mirrored the 1935 Government of India Act, under-investment in school education in the 1950s, the central planning and socialism turn, the licence-quota-permit raj, nationalisation of banks and insurance in the late 1960s, Emergency, the elimination of property rights as a fundamental right in the 1970s, the lost opportunities at opening up the economy fully after the 1991 crisis, and demonetisation in 2016.
The first lockdown on March 28 was important because there was a need to get the health infrastructure ready to cope with the increase in cases. By early April, it was clear that while the virus will lead to a spike in deaths, it was not as fatal as it was initially assumed. We are now in Lockdown 5.0, euphemistically called Unlock India 1. The successive lockdowns after that were driven because the politicians and bureaucrats who were making the decisions quarantined from the real world, experts and common sense.
For the record, I wrote about the need to unlock India in early April:
Let me start by saying that every life is important. As family members and citizens, we are duty-bound to take care of our near and dear ones, and others around us by following rules. Yet, despite all this, 9 million Indians die every year. That is about 24,000 daily, and 1,000 every hour. Let’s say that again – 1,000 Indians across the country die every HOUR. Some die of natural causes, others in accidents, and so on. We do not and protect every one of those deaths. We do take care – we have home care, medicines, hospitals, seat belts, helmets, and so on. And yet, the reality is 1,000 Indians die every HOUR.
What research has shown so far is that Coronavirus can be fatal for about 5% of those infected. It is especially dangerous for those over 65 years of age and having pre-existing medical conditions. The virus also spreads rapidly – it has a reproduction factor of 3-4, meaning that one infected person can infect 3-4 others, leading to exponential growth in infections. Many of those infected may not even show any symptoms – they are asymptomatic. A small percentage will need medical care, and an even smaller percentage will require hospitalisation.
To put this in context, the impact of the virus will lead to an increase in deaths over the next year in India. Even at the upper end of estimates, this is still expected to be much lower than the 1.5 million deaths each year from cardiac arrest. One more disease, some more deaths. We could lose a near or dear one also. We will be angry if they could not be saved.
The question to ask is: given the high rate of infection and spread (which will probably be hard to stop given that we may see multiple waves), and low fatality rate – can Indians afford to sit scared at home for the next many months and avoid all contact with each other when there is no guarantee that the virus itself will disappear even as medical science makes the best efforts? If so, why don’t we sit at home to avoid possible deaths on train tracks and on the road? Can we really afford to harm our own future in the way we are going about it right now? Even as we try and save lives from the virus, what about the lives, livelihoods and futures we are destroying because of the economic pandemic? Are we making the cure worse than the disease?
That was written on April 6 – almost two months ago. Even now, the political leadership in India at all levels has not fully grasped the gravity of the healthcare crisis and the economic devastation that lies ahead.
Tomorrow: India needs War Cabinets (Part 2)