The complete lockdown is not supposed to be lifted only when the COVID-19 is eradicated. Covid-19 continues to survive amongst us. We all know that the World Health Organisation’s special envoy for Covid-19, Dr. David Nabarro has said in a BBC interview on April 21, “We have all got to learn to live with this virus, to do our business with this virus in our presence, to have social relations with this virus in our presence and not to be continuously having to be in lockdown because of the widespread infections that can occur.” Many experts including health professionals, social and policy analysts or even public leaders agree that lockdown is not an end in itself but is for buying time to prepare to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Manipur has been under lockdown for a complete five months effective from March 21 even when there was no COVID-19 case in the state. Relaxations have been only intermittent, at most for a few hours, for a certain category of services and otherwise normal life has remained completely paralysed.
Here, it is pertinent to raise a few questions. Has the lockdown been able to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in Manipur? Does the state government have a policy strategy to fight COVID-19? Is Manipur prepared well enough to fight the COVID-19 pandemic? What did the government do to make the lockdown successful? What next after the lockdown?
If the Government of Manipur has positive answers to these questions, why do the COVID-19 positive cases rise as also the fatality reports? As of August 21 the total number of positive cases has reached 5049 with 21 deaths while 3261 have recovered and 1768 remain active, of which only 974 are locals while 794 are Central security personnel.
Notably, we all agreed that the COVID-19 cases in Manipur were all imported and Manipur was once in the green zone and the government celebrated it. If the government is prepared enough during the lockdown, why has local transmissions reached 1585 cases as of August 21? We all know that the quarantine centres are not established properly which has allowed the virus to spread amongst the quarantinees, volunteers and other frontline COVID-19 warriors, including health care workers and police personnel.
Now, has the COVID-19 spread beyond quarantine centers? How did it happen? Who is to be held responsible for this? Is it meaningless to raise these questions? If meaningless, how will the shortcomings in handling the virus be overcome?
Even though the state government has not declared it yet, the State Technical Expert Committee on COVID-19 came to the conclusion on August 11 that Manipur has moved to the first stage of community transmission as indicated by the high number of local transmissions detected continuously during the past one week or so. The COVID-19 has started to spread amongst health care providers including doctors, nurses and other health care workers of the hospitals.
Consequently, the state government without any hesitation has extended the lockdown till August 31. Since the number of fatalities and local transmission has increased, ignorant people think that the extension of lockdown is the only means to fight COVID-19. These ignorant people with their inward-looking attitude in the local communities are now resorting to putting up drop gates and barriers to not only prohibit entry of outsiders into their areas for fear they may bring the virus, but are prohibiting frontline health workers from leaving their localities, or if they have already left for work, then from returning home, thereby having a bad impact on the general population among whom are those hit hard like the daily wage earners and those who don’t draw government salaries.
Enough has been said and discussed in a number of reports and articles here about the failure of the lockdown and COVID-19 fight. Still the state government has not come up with a policy strategy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of people including a pregnant woman died as there are no SOPs for non-COVID patients.
However, the state government seems to be comfortable to respond to the pandemic from case to case, and issue to issue, without having a comprehensive policy strategy to fight the pandemic.
Many public leaders, even ministers, health professionals, police officers, social observers, opinion makers and also intellectuals say that people of Manipur fail to follow the Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The people don’t wear masks in public places and even if they wear they don’t wear it properly; they don’t maintain physical distancing; and they don’t maintain hand hygiene. It then seems justified that complete lockdown is the only means to curb the COVID-19 pandemic as long as the people of Manipur don’t follow the three fundamental SOPs.
But it is pertinent again to raise a few more questions here – Have the government and authorities concerned taken initiative to influence the people and bring about change in their attitudes and behaviours? Is it enough to just say follow SOPs by wearing face mask, maintain physical distancing and maintain hand hygiene without eventually creating an environment so that these SOPs are followed?
We all know that people’s behaviour changes when they are exposed to a particular environment involving certain sights, words or feelings. Choices are made by people in an environment where visible and invisible features influence their decisions.
Therefore, policymakers have to create choices and insert cues in different environments to push people towards a favourable behaviour for a new normal. Policymakers and government authorities should not assume every person can afford a face mask and change it frequently while what they are struggling for is just a square meal.
To create choices or insert cues, for example, the state can encourage people particularly women to wear scarves fashionably to suit the cultural context of Manipur. Instead of imposing the wearing of clinical facemasks, the youth, particularly boys, can also be given the option to wear their large handkerchiefs or scarves as bandana, as they are used to wear for fashion.
Examples can include installing as many public sinks and liquid soaps as possible at easily identifiable public places, where people automatically wash their hands. Drawing of durable circles or squares, not washable or easily erasable, at intervals of one metre on the road near such public sinks, vegetable market-sheds and grocery shops, pharmaceutical shops, hospitals and any public place has made people adopt physical distancing, as we see in many South East Asian countries, particularly Vietnam. The state has to show the public by action not just words. Such measures should be adopted to influence people’s behaviour positively.
It is more important to instil in the minds of the people how far we’ve come and describe the path ahead. This will ensure a commitment on the part of people to maintain physical distancing, avoid unnecessary outings, and so on. As more people adopt precaution, they will provide a visible cue that social norms have shifted. For instance, we can see that Shradha or Lanna-Thouram, the day-long ceremony on the death of a family member of the Meiteis, has changed and now rituals are concluded in the forenoon. This prominent happening will self-perpetuate since human beings tend to mimic others around them, and a new normal could be induced.
We need to appreciate the fact that humans are fundamentally irrational and inconsistent in their choices. Many experts also agree that human behavior has a central role to play in the fight against COVID-19. It is critical to embed behavioural science in our response to this pandemic.
Enforcement of fines for non-compliance could act in favor of ensuring compliance. We can learn in this matter from Singapore where there is the $300 fine for those who don’t abide by government rules such as maintaining six-feet physical distancing.
Prolonged complete lockdown is not the only response the state can have against the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if lockdown is necessary it should be only for the targeted hot spots and a limited number of days during which all the preparations are to be accomplished. Otherwise, prolonged and state-wide complete lockdown will weaken the people’s immune which is necessary to fight the virus. Eight prominent public health specialists of Manipur in a press statement released on August 20, as part of their continuous education and knowledge sharing on COVID-19, have suggested that total community survey is a must, while also asserting that a state-wide lockdown is not required anymore.
Even if the state government thinks that lockdown is the only means, to make it successful the state has to provide food so that people can survive in the lockdown. To avoid large crowds, the government should procure vegetables from the farmers and drop at select places which are convenient to the locals of every locality. Buying vegetables from the farmers and reselling at two or three select outlets will not serve the purpose.
In short, even when lockdown has been in place for more than five months, the state government has not made a clear cut comprehensive policy strategy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic till date. The state government seems comfortable to fight the pandemic in an ad-hoc manner which will hit the people, particularly the daily wage earners and those working in the private sector who are not being paid their salaries due to the lockdown.
Even now, the state government can have a comprehensive policy strategy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic since late is still better than never. Ultimately the policy strategy should also include the new norms to be followed once the lockdown is over.
Senior Editor: Imphal Review of Arts and Politics