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What’s up with India’s coronavirus lockdown:

did it work and what’s the plan now?

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 11:30am, 3 May, 2020


  • The Modi administration has extended the lockdown for two weeks, lauding its effectiveness in halting the virus’ spread, even as the economy takes a hit

  • Public health experts worry the time – which could have been used to prepare for a second wave of infection – has been wasted


A government official checks the temperature of migrant workers to prepare a list of those staying in a camp in New Delhi during India’s virus lockdown. Photo: AFP

Nearly six weeks after India’s government imposed a complete coronavirus lockdown on the country’s more than 1.3 billion residents, the jury is still out on whether the restrictions had the desired effect.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has emphasised the positive outcomes, other observers have their own mixed opinions of one of the world’s strictest lockdowns – which on Friday was extended for two weeks beyond May 4 – and whether it has achieved all that it was expected to.

n Friday, India recorded 1,913 new coronavirus cases over 24 hours, taking the country’s total to 35,043 with 1,147 deaths. The government, in extending the lockdown, said restrictions would be relaxed in districts that did not have active Covid-19 infections.

According to Modi’s government, the growth rate of infection is slowing and is evidence of the lockdown’s success. Yet with millions of migrant workers stranded far from home without access to adequate food supplies, and millions more pushed into poverty, some are questioning whether the lockdown was worth it. Especially as the country’s GDP growth rate drops into the negative – piling on the pressure to lift restrictions.

Independent health experts have also questioned whether the government has made best use of those six weeks to plan for an uncertain future.


On Thursday, joint secretary of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Lav Agarwal, trumpeted the fact that the country’s “doubling rate” – the time it takes for the number of infections to double in size – had been increased from 3.4 days before the lockdown to almost 11 days now.

According to an internal study that the Modi administration cited last week, India would have had more than 100,000 cases by April if restrictions had not been put in place.

The government further insists that the lockdown helped break the chain of transmission and, in effect, helped it handle the crisis better. As evidence of this, Agarwal pointed to the proportion of Covid-19 patients who have since recovered, which has nearly doubled from 13 per cent two weeks ago to 25.37 per cent on Thursday.

“What has worked for India is that the timing of the lockdown was pretty good. We locked it down at the beginning of the spread and, hence, that has helped curtail the spread of the virus,” said Oommen C. Kurian, a senior fellow who leads the health initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) think tank in New Delhi.

Kurian and other experts point to another reason why the lockdown was key in the fight against Covid-19: India’s public health care system is skeletal, poorly funded and has traditionally been neglected. Government data shows India spent less than 1.3 per cent of its GDP on health care in 2017-18, while data collated by How India Lives, an open data repository, reveals that the country had just 61 beds per 100,000 people, on average, before the pandemic. Combine this with the 48,000 or so ventilators it was estimated to have at that time and you get figures that analysts say were woefully inadequate to meet demand if the number of cases continued to rise.

Which has led to the authorities scrambling to fix the system.


Municipal officers set up beds at a quarantine centre in Mumbai, India’s worst-hit city. Photo: Xinhua

In Mumbai, the worst-hit Indian city with nearly 10,000 cases and 270 deaths, the lockdown had given the authorities the time to mobilise resources, said Amey Ghole, chairman of the health committee of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the city’s local government.

But with more than 31,700 people packed into each square kilometre, Ghole said that the city had the dual challenge of mobilising existing infrastructure while also creating it.

“For instance, there was a defunct hospital that we got up and running in 7 days with over 500 beds. We have even created quarantine centres out of concert venues and exhibition centres,” he said, pointing to the National Sports Club of India, one of the country’s largest event venues, which has been turned into a 500-bed quarantine centre.

In addition, the BMC – inspired by the construction of Wuhan’s Huoshenshan hospital in 10 days – is planning to erect a three-storey, 50-bed permanent hospital in three months.


Public health experts like Dr Amar Jesani, though, believe that the lockdown could have been better utilised. Jesani, a senior public health researcher and editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, said that the government’s approach seemed to be treating the lockdown as the end, rather than a means to the end.

“A lockdown is not the solution to fight a pandemic. A lockdown is meant to slow the rate of growth of the virus and give the authorities more time to prepare health systems so that they are able to tackle the outbreak when it happens,” he said.


A migrant worker sits in a closed wholesale market in the old quarter of Delhi on Thursday amid the nationwide lockdown. Photo: AP

Jesani said he believed the Modi government should have used the lockdown to mobilise and enlist private health facilities, which hadn't happened yet. In addition, the hurried way in which the lockdown was imposed – with just four hours’ notice – would also prove costly in the long term as more efforts were made to tackle the virus’ spread, he said.


Migrant labourers line up at a temporary shelter in Allahabad on Thursday, waiting for specially arranged government buses to return to their homes. Photo: AFP

Giving such little notice meant that migrant workers were stranded in the cities they had moved to for work without their wages or adequate food and water supplies. The Modi government neglected to make arrangements for them to return home and with public transport suspended, thousands were forced to walk for days on end just to reach their loved ones – a mass exodus that also resulted in deaths.

“The government, despite six weeks of the lockdown, has still not made adequate precautions for its most vulnerable people. By leaving them hungry and exposed, the government has actually reduced their immunity during a pandemic,” Jesani said.


A major factor that has been weighing on the minds of India’s policymakers is the economic cost of continuing such a lockdown. The complete lockdown imposed on March 24 has since sent the country’s economic indicators deep into the red. One estimate found that the Indian economy was expected to lose at least US$93 billion in the first three weeks alone, while another forecast the permanent loss of up to 4 per cent of GDP as a result of the economic disruption caused by the pandemic and lockdown.

Unemployment was at a high of at least 23 per cent and the economy was expected to register growth of only between 1.5 and -0.9 per cent, the Confederation of Indian Industry said in a recent note.


Such poor economic indicators are highly influential when deciding whether to lift a lockdown. In certain “green zones”, areas which have not registered any cases of the virus, some curbs were relaxed last month.


A health official uses a nasal swab to collect a sample from a man at a mobile Covid-19 testing unit in Delhi. Photo: AFP

Experts have warned that countries like India cannot afford to rush to open up. It is generally accepted that cases will rise as a result and officials are expecting a second wave of infection once restrictions are eased.

Kurian from ORF said the government must test more in areas it considers to be coronavirus-free. “That is the only way we will know that there are, indeed, no cases. We must remember that it is a long-drawn fight. People expect a miracle, but that is not possible,” he said.

Ghole, chairman of the Mumbai health panel, said the city’s authorities were in it for the long haul – the city was planning to set up nearly 75,000 quarantine beds in the coming months. “We are not being complacent. Instead, we are planning our strategies till at least September,” he said. 

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