Modi’s biggest dilemma: to lift or continue the lockdown

As India nears the end of the 21-day lockdown, there is a big debate over whether it should be extended or relaxed. Reports suggest that the states have requested the Centre to extend the lockdown.

A draft report of Indian Railways Traffic Service (IRTS) circulating on WhatsApp groups suggests lifting of lockdown in a phased manner. States like Kerala are contemplating a three-stage lifting of the lockdown. 

Public and institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) have applauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi for taking the bold decision with respect to the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in India. They also appreciate the fact that this move has resulted in lower number of cases in India. 

However, many of them also acknowledge the fact that a developing country like India cannot afford a further lockdown which will have massive economic impact. It has now boiled down to a trade-off between loss of lives and loss of livelihood and business.

PM Modi, in a bold measure, announced a complete lockdown on March 24 for 3 weeks, ending 14th April. Some states like Maharashtra had already enforced a lockdown on 21st March for 10 days up to 31st March. At the time of announcing the lockdown, COVID-19 positive cases in India were just over 500. Today that number has crossed 5,000. 

In the last week cases have jumped from 2,000 to 5,000 rising at approximately 500 or more per day. A section of the medical fraternity is already saying that India is between stage 2 and stage 3 currently. The coronavirus outbreak has reached community transmission stage in Mumbai as per the BMC.

Confirmed Cases of India - Trajectory

Source: www.covid19india.org

Many countries and cities are now following India’s model. Singapore is under a complete lockdown from 8th April to 7th May. New York City has extended it till 29th of April. 

Modi is known for taking bold decisions. Now, this is the biggest dilemma of his life. He imposed a lockdown when India had 500 cases, so will it be prudent to lift it when there are over 5,000 cases and the rate of spread of the coronavirus has increased rapidly, especially after the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi. 

If Modi lifts the lockdown and God forbid there is a spike in cases, he would be blamed for the situation. However, each day of lockdown comes with a humungous economic cost of around $8 billion worth of GDP. The Centre has announced an economic package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore, while states combined around Rs 40,000 crore. The RBI has announced a moratorium of 3 months on all business and individual loan EMIs.

Economists have criticized the Modi government terming the package as meagre compared to other countries affected by the pandemic. The government is under pressure to announce more such packages. Any extension of the lockdown period will put further pressure on the economy which was already witnessing a slowdown.

Modi interacted with Opposition leaders over the issue. News reports say that Modi is likely to take a decision to the effect after a conference call with the state chief ministers scheduled on Saturday. One of the key questions which could help Modi in making his decision is ‘have coronavirus cases in India peaked?’

Mohal Joshi, columnist and podcaster based in the United States, who has been tracking the pandemic in America and India says, ‘If no new mass breakouts, we can hopefully peak maybe in late April.’

He further adds, ‘Problem is if you lift the lockdown too soon you might witness a decline in cases, but then again it could spike which defeats the purpose of the lockdown where you sacrifice economic growth for keeping the pandemic under control.’

The spread of the pandemic in India has been uneven. Ten states account for 80% of the total cases in the country. In about 200 districts there are no cases, in another 200 districts there have been less than 10 cases. So, in more than half of the country’s districts, the number of cases is nil or less than 10. Subhash Chandra, CEO of Crowdwisdom, suggests that the lockdown should be lifted from these areas.

Mohal Joshi adds, ‘Districts where cases have declined for the last 7-14 days or those who are not seeing any uptick in cases should be released from the lockdown.

The big question which arises then is how to prevent movement into and out of badly affected areas (red zones / hotspots). You don’t want them to blow up areas where it is under control by having infected persons enter.’

Modi has to play a balancing act between saving lives of people and kickstarting the economy. The decision won’t be easy.

Stay safe!

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