View: Start depoliticising the Covid-19 dashboard, and prioritise economic recovery

Lockdown 3.0 marks the beginning of India’s exit from Covid-19 curfew. Given India’s relatively better showing on the coronavirus dashboard, and in view of the rising economic stress, expectations were high for a more rapid withdrawal. But the exit process is proving to be complex and constrained. These have made it, arguably, a riskier political call than imposing the lockdown itself.

The biggest concern is how to keep the numbers on the dashboard in control while easing lockdown restrictions. Never before has such a daily count being tracked so scrupulously nationally. This makes the fight against Covid-19 politically sensitive, almost like waging a war, where losing is not an option.

What it effectively means for the political leadership, be it at the Centre or in states, is that the average national daily rate of infection, now below 4%, must not rise. This 4% is now a politically sensitive number. The number of fatalities in India are not that alarming — yet. Which keeps the spotlight on the infection rate — also the key determinant in the colour-coding and zoning of a district.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have a rough blueprint for lifting lockdown, he has to deal with the fact that chief ministers will have their own idea of what’s an ‘acceptable’ number. In many ways, it was politically easier for state governments to support lockdown in the interest of public safety than it will be to lift it for economic reasons.

So, what we are witnessing in Lockdown 3.0 is a working compromise, where CMs have some latitude to tighten restrictions, but not ease them on their own. The latter power GoI has kept with itself, contingent upon the weekly review of how districts perform. Broadly, the picture is one of caution, where the political objective is to not let the number of districts in the red zone increase. This also explains the ambiguity in many of the orders as an effort has been made to ensure there’s enough residual authority to intervene or pull back if a situation goes out of hand.

Wait, Which Way is the Exit?

The apprehension is that a large cluster, of the kind mapped in the Tablighi Jamaat case, is lurking around the corner. The movement of nearly 3,000 Sikh pilgrims from Hazur Saheb in Nanded, Maharashtra, to Punjab has created panic after nearly 200 of them were found Covid-positive on arrival. Immediately, the consensus withers, and political red lines get drawn. This is why migrants returning home to their villages and the prospective evacuation of Indians from abroad are two factors that need to be monitored closely in this phase of the lockdown. GoI will have to find ways to calibrate and control their dispersal, especially migrants headed to districts in the green zone.

While making the right political noises for their return, CMs are worried about the virus entering their states from an ‘external’ source.

This explains why Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, despite being from BJP, is proving a difficult customer. His government had showcased Jhajjar district as Covidfree on April 15. Two weeks later, at least 24 cases were discovered. In the past few days, the state has shown a sudden spike, even as it remains among the best performers in India. After due mapping, it was found that the infection probably travelled through carriers from Delhi.

This brings us to the six states that are the biggest worry for the rest of the country, both as a source of infection and its spread.

  • Maharashtra: High infection rate of about 10.78%, way above the national average. Worst affected districts are Mumbai, Pune, Mumbai suburban, Thane and Nashik.

  • Delhi: Almost all districts affected, has an infection rate of 7.78%, but is testing larger numbers.

  • Madhya Pradesh: Low testing, down by about 29%, while infection rate is 6.4%. Worst affected districts are Indore, Bhopal, Ujjain and Mandsaur.

  • West Bengal: Infection rate of just over 6%, but has been conducting less than 200 tests per million. Kolkata and 24 Parganas (North) worst affected.

The other two states are Uttar Pradesh, which is again testing smaller numbers, and Gujarat, with an infection rate of 6.6% and increasing numbers in the past week. These six states also account for about 80% of Covid deaths in India.

We have no information on the number who may have succumbed to non-Covid medical conditions. There’s no live dashboard for those numbers, which could well be higher. So, are limited healthcare resources being denied or delayed to other patients? After all, the number of patients requiring intensive care are few, with over 80% Covid-19 patients recovering without much medical intervention.

Will the Tortoise Win Again?

The truth is, the virus is unlikely to just disappear. It’s imperative to put in place measures to break the chain of spread. This long-term view appears to be at odds with the political sensitivity attached to Covid-19. At one level, the sensitivity is welcome, as it has pushed states to stretch themselves to prevent an epidemic from setting in. Then again, there are limits to what State power can achieve when it comes to fighting Covid-19. It can slow the spread, provide healthcare infrastructure and enable research to find a permanent solution. But it cannot guarantee ‘zero’ infection.

It’s time to start depoliticising the Covid-19 dashboard, reframe and reset priorities around a different political narrative centred on economic recovery, which looks to capitalise on the gains from the lockdown strategy.

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