India’s Coronavirus Exit Strategy: A Mission Destined to Fail?
It has been more than 2 months since the complete national lockdown was imposed on India. To curb the spread of the coronavirus and ensure the health facilities don’t collapse under the stress of the disease, the lockdown was crucial for saving lives. As the lockdown is getting relaxed, we have seen cases rise higher than before, as India has started to ramp up its testing. In the midst of this pandemic, it is the migrants who were hit the hardest. As months passed by, the Indian economy has remained stagnant. People are conflicted about the opening of the country, considering the sheer size of India. However, India can’t afford another lockdown and therefore has to employ a cautious reopening with aggressive testing. India must learn to live with the virus to address migrant woes and prevent a severe recession.
On 31st December 2019, the WHO China Country Office was notified of a cluster of pneumonia cases in the Hubei province of Wuhan, China. Unknown to everyone, these pneumonic cases would spread to become a worldwide pandemic in March of 2020. The pandemic hit countries like Italy and subsequently even broke the back of the United States. In the midst of all this panic, where does India come into play? Constant coronavirus cases exposed the cracks of the most extensive healthcare systems, and it is no different for India. With over 4 lakh cases, India has been hit very hard. India doesn’t have the luxury to waste time as its medical infrastructure is way behind that of the US or Italy. Even though the lockdown, which was imposed in March, did save lives and buy some time, the ultimate test starts now. With cases on the rise as restrictions are relaxed, India will have to develop a smart and coherent strategy to save lives.
The coronavirus shut down all jobs in urban cities except for essential services such as healthcare. In the midst of this, domestic migrant workers have been forced to go back home with no income and only a small chance of coming back to urban cities. The lockdown was announced only 4 hours before getting implemented, which led to mass panic. Migrants faced a dilemma: either die from the virus or die from hunger. This has led to many migrant laborers traveling miles to reach their villages. Only recently, some Shramik trains were arranged to accommodate them. With many migrants living in more crowded and highly dense areas, they are more inclined to get infected. Following social distancing and maintaining personal hygiene in these circumstances becomes impossible for migrants. Along with that, many migrants don’t have access to masks, sanitizers, or even good doctors if they get sick. As they are the most vulnerable, it is to the utmost importance that their needs are taken care of in these desperate times. A longer lockdown will only worsen the situation with more people going back to their villages, potentially increasing the virus spread.
With an aggressive lockdown, India’s economy has taken a hit. The International Monetary Fund has predicted India’s economy to contract by 4.5% in the fiscal year of 2021. The lack of investment, demand, and economic activities paint a worrying picture of India’s economy in the future. The lockdown has decreased the production of the large agricultural sector of India, putting many farmers’ livelihoods in jeopardy. Even though the government has come up with economic welfare schemes, the sheer size of the population of India will always be an obstacle to implementing those schemes properly. The economic toll will throw millions of Indians into unemployment and push India several years back if proper steps are not taken. Although the Coronavirus pandemic is a massive obstacle for India to overcome, the economic toll will only exacerbate the situation. Thus, India cannot afford another lockdown.
Compared to other countries, India’s testing capacity is lacking. With fears of undercounting of deaths and positive cases, there isn’t a clear picture of the virus spread in India. With 5636 tests per million population, as of 26th June 2020, testing in India is one of the lowest in the entire world. As the lockdown is relaxed, we see a rise in cases in states like New Delhi and Karnataka. With cases multiplying rapidly, the demand for the scarce ventilators and hospital beds would increase. The testing has to be increased and should be available to all, whether the person has symptoms or not. In a country like India, having testing capacity like that of the US is not realistic, but to ensure a smooth transition from the lockdown, aggressive testing has to be employed. The proof is the state of New York in the US, where 60,000 tests every day and extensive tracing have enabled the state to have a phased relaxation of its lockdown.
With more lockdowns simply unfeasible because of the state of the economy and migrant woes, a smart strategy to restart the country has to be employed. The lockdown was never employed to eradicate the virus; it bought time for the government to prepare their medical infrastructure to accommodate the increased number of patients. In this sense, a phased reopening has to be employed. People in India have to learn to live with the virus, given the size of the country. Even though India has started to open, the extra time bought during the lockdown will go to waste if testing is not ramped up even more. Aggressive testing would be the key for the country to move forward so that the infected can be traced, isolated, and treated effectively.