India has been observing a total lockdown to contain the novel coronavirus spread for nearly a month now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had initially announced a three-week lockdown last month that was supposed to end on April 14. But the spike in COVID-19 cases in India has forced PM Modi to extend the lockdown until May 3 – at least.
But when PM Modi announced the lockdown extension last week, he also added that the administration would allow the re-opening of certain portions of the economy. The problem is that the phased lockdown exit that PM Modi was looking for seems to be running into bottlenecks.
On April 20, India was supposed to restart nearly 45 percent of its economic activities that came to a grinding halt on March 25 when the novel coronavirus-induced lockdown came into effect. The administration decided to throw open agricultural businesses such as fisheries and farming, as well as public work programs such as road construction.
Daily wage laborers such as carpenters, plumbers, and electricians were also supposed to ply their trade once again. The country had also allowed for the re-opening of banks, clinics, hospitals, ATMs, and government offices in areas that fall outside of the coronavirus containment zones.
But the easing of restrictions came with a set of strict guidelines to ensure that social distancing is followed. The central government has given authority to individual states and local jurisdictions to decide if easing of lockdown restrictions can be allowed.
According to a statement by India’s ministry of home affairs:
In order to mitigate hardship to the public, select additional activities would be allowed, which would come into effect from 20th April 2020. However, these additional activities would be operationalized by States/ Union Territories (UTs)/ District Administrations based on strict compliance to the existing guidelines on lockdown measures.
As it turns out, several Indian states have decided that they won’t be easing the restrictions, and a strict lockdown will continue to be observed until May 3. Moreover, a broken supply chain and a massive migration of daily wage laborers to their villages have crippled the availability of raw materials caused a shortage of manpower.
Ritesh Srivastava, who manufactures homeopathic medicines in the north Indian city of Lucknow, told AFP:
With no raw material, a ban on transportation, and the non-availability of manpower, I have not been able to operate.
So, it seems that India’s strategy of a staggered lockdown exit may not be working after all as states and local authorities continue to struggle with the containment of COVID-19.
Earlier, India wasn’t testing enough people to find out the true extent of the novel coronavirus spread. At the end of March, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) revealed that the country had tested only 42,788 samples for the novel coronavirus. That was a woeful testing rate for a country of more than 1.3 billion people.
The good news is that coronavirus testing in India has been ramped up strongly this month. More than 401,000 samples have been tested from nearly 384,000 individuals until the night of April 19. This has revealed a massive spike in infections. The country now has more than 18,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases – 10x more than the 1,834 cases that were reported on April 1.
As such, it won’t be safe to say that India has flattened the novel coronavirus infection curve as the number of cases has spiked big time in the past couple of days.
This is why easing lockdown restrictions may not be a great idea, though India faces a difficult choice between restarting the economy and keeping people indoors to contain the spread. As hundreds of millions of daily wage earners in India who earn less than $2 a day sit at home, the country is now staring at a hunger crisis.
Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of Management, told VICE News:
India is witnessing a threefold crisis: health crisis due to the epidemic, economic due to the lockdown and humanitarian because the government either didn’t realize how a large part of the population survives or knowingly is choosing to ignore their situation.
A database tracking the number of non-COVID-19 related deaths after the lockdown measures came into force last month shows a gradual increase in that number.
So, it remains to be seen how long India decides to keep its population under a lockdown. Though the government is taking steps to ensure food security by providing free meals to the needy along with cash transfers, it remains to be seen how the country manages to restart the economy and contain the spread simultaneously.