A Response to Soham Bhaduri and others

A Response to Soham Bhaduri and others

Some readers of my article “India’s Tryst with Covid19” have been concerned about the criticism there of India’s lockdown policy. [See the readers' comments here and here.] I take this opportunity to clarify my concerns. 

I accept the need for a policy which restricts the freedom of movement in order to control an epidemic. I agree with Soham Bhaduri’s observation that “a majority of countries worldwide have had to resort to this unprecedented natural experiment, in some form or the other, is enough testimony to its need”. 

What I do not accept is the manner in which it was implemented in India, which marks it out as being very different from all other countries and from India’s own past record. 

I have three specific questions which remain unanswered. First, why was the lockdown so stringent? India’s lockdown ranks as the most stringent in the world, even denying people public transportation—which has continued to operate in most other countries. This effectively means the vast majority of people, without private vehicles, would find it extremely difficult to go to hospitals when they have a serious medical emergency (including Covid19). 

The second question is: why was the lockdown imposed simultaneously across a continental nation of over a billion people? We know very well that epidemics are spatial events which are best controlled through local action guided by the local transmission dynamics. Indeed, this is why I agree with Subhash Salunke’s observation that the Kerala model may not work in Dharavi. 

Third, why was the initial three-week-long lockdown imposed with just four-hours’ warning, at 8 pm? How can hundreds of millions of people at such short notice make arrangements to be imprisoned in their homes and prepare themselves for a loss of livelihood? 

Granted, there is an inherent uncertainty of the epidemic’s trajectory, presenting a dilemma for policy makers. As I wrote in my article, I sympathise with what must have presented an impossibly difficult decision.  But could the government not have anticipated and avoided the tragedy of millions of our poorest citizens facing hunger and desperation, trekking back to their villages, suffering police brutalities on the way, and then in many instances reaching home only to find themselves ostracised by their communities?  

The choice between the Indian-style lockdown and ‘total normalcy’ is a false dichotomy. There are humane, planned, and staggered approaches to impose lockdowns. Central to this is engaging the population as a mature citizenry and invoking their trust to be part of a shared endeavour, rather than threatening them with police action and the fear of death—as if we are children with no sense to preserve our own lives. 

Indeed, I find Bhaduri’s comment that “a country like India […] sees pervasive disregard of even a draconian lockdown” frankly insulting to our people who have borne the brunt of the lockdown with solidarity and restraint. 

It is also instructive to note another major difference between other countries and India. We have the largest number, in absolute terms and proportions, of people working in the informal sector, with no social security net. The predictable economic shock of the lockdown has escalated the slide of millions into acute poverty.  This is why I invoke a comparison with the numbers of people who die due to myriad other diseases—many of which are associated with poverty—with those due to Covid19. I made the point to illustrate my argument about proportionality and the need to ensure that a policy seeking to save lives from one disease does not inadvertently increase the risks due to other causes. Every life matters. 

 

Vikram Patel
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