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COVID Response Must be Fit to Purpose, Nothing Less But Nothing Excessively More Either

[avatar user=”meihouba” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]PRADIP PHANJOUBAM[/avatar]

The first round of nationwide lockdown is due to come to an end in a week. The government must now consider in earnest the question of what steps to take thereafter. Although a distinct character of the present government is an intolerance for critical voices, not just that of dissenting opinions, in the belief that democracy is rule by public discussions and discourses, we would still like to forward our opinion on how to proceed. Very briefly, all policies should be marked by their fitness to purpose. While there should be no room for underestimation of the adversary, there should not be too much overreaction as well, wasting in the process valuable energy and resources. This is particularly important as the race before us promises to be a marathon and not a 100-meter sprint, therefore frugal expense of energy so we can run the entire race without collapsing midway, is vital.

This is to say, we do not need the extravagance (or austerity in the present case) of Teflon-coated, carbon-steel, Swiss Army Knives to sharpen pencils. If this caution is not heeded, all battleplans can go waste miserably. The illustrative cliché that a chain is as strong as its weakest link should make the scenario vivid. Imphal saw a hint of this when the government, after three weeks of very harshly enforced lockdown, relaxed and allowed markets to open for four hours this morning (April 11) in view of the approaching Cheiraoba Festival and people ended up throwing cautions into the wind and literally stampeded into marketplaces to buy provisions. In those four hours, if the virus is amidst us, all the hardships of the weeks of tough lockdown would have been undone (the nationwide 21-day lockdown which began on March 25, dovetailed another 5-day lockdown in Manipur which began on March 21). It would be wrong to blame the people alone for this apparent indiscipline, for their behaviour was induced by desperation and terror of the spectre of starvation. Instead, the blame must be shared by the government for not foreseeing this predicament and making sure that despite the difficulties of a lockdown, the fear of actual starvation amongst the public remained remote.

What then can be done in the weeks ahead after the current spell of lockdown? In the 20 days that have gone under lockdown, the COVID-19 picture in Manipur is quite clear. The place is still more or less clean of the virus it seems. There have been two who tested positive of the disease. One of them has since recovered and the other is also on the way of recovering. All other suspected to likely have contracted the virus have all tested negative, but are under quarantine. There also have not been any known cases of COVID-19 symptoms showing up amongst the rest of the population, and since the incubation period of the virus is known to be confined within 14 days (most say 3 to 8 days so 14 should be safe), this can only mean the virus has been successfully kept at bay, though it can still come in anytime. The plan ahead must treat this scenario as the foundation. Manipur must coordinate with the Union government’s approach based on the national scenario, but it must also insist on factoring the peculiarity of Manipur’s situation. This is to say Manipur must prepare for a double-layered strategy. Wherever the larger concerns of the nation coincide with those of the state, say for instance in restricting inter-state travels, it must go together with the Union, but where they do not, the state must seek to be allowed a different approach. A recent Indian Council of Medical Research, ICMR, report on COVID-19 in India has somewhat endorsed this approach. The report identified 36 districts in 15 states as epicentres of the disease where community transmission may have begun but things are not as bad in much of the rest of the country. Quite obviously then, since the challenges before Maharashtra, Gujarat or Kerala cannot be the same as the challenges before Manipur, Nagaland or Meghalaya, it would be a waste to think of a single monolithic national approach to the problem.

Keeping these issues in mind, we suggest the following:

  • Let restrictions in people’s movements within the state remain but this must not be total. Let the economy not be brought to a grinding halt and wherever the risks are low, allow it to chug along. As for instance we know that the rains are not far away and the paddy crop cycle is nearing another start. We cannot afford to allow this cycle to be broken for this can be disastrous in the coming months. As it is, the harvest was bad last year because of delayed rain and this year the price of Manipur’s staple – rice – is predicted to be dear this year. If this year again the crop fails because of bad lockdown planning, we can imagine what the predicament we would be in.
  • Let market places, especially those dealing with foodstuff and other essentials not be completely shut down. Local provision stores must be allowed to remain open like pharmacies are, which also means there must be channels open for them to replenish their stocks from wholesalers.
  • Markets must also be allowed to function, though with regulated number of vendors. As for instance, if there are 100 vendors in a particular Keithel, 30 at a time in rotation could be allowed to carry on their businesses so that the market is not crowded and vending space remain at the recommended social-distancing gaps. If this were to be so, there would be no crowding and scrambling for provisions on days of lockdown relaxation as it happened on April 11. Not only this, such an approach would save a number of livelihoods, from those of the vendors to those of farmers growing vegetables.
  • In similar manner, the government must strive to save other jobs and livelihood means in the informal sectors, at least those which would not breach the social distancing norms by necessity. As for instance, crowds don’t gather around a welding mechanic’s shop so there should be no great harm in allowing them to pursue their businesses.
  • If at any time, prevalence of COVID-19 shows an upward trend in the state (hopefully never), restrictions can again get tighter. It is going to be a long drawn out war, and our fortune is going to wax and wane, and we should be prepared to meet the changing nature of the challenge from time to time with appropriate response, as and when the changes occur. If there are ways to save the informal sector jobs, they must be saved, for allowing them to disappear can spell long term disasters perhaps even more terrible than COVID-19. As a state not badly affected yet, the government must to the extent possible, go for calibrated lockdowns rather than complete and extended ones.
  • Instead of thinking of cash awards for those doing the onerous job well now, just as the government has impulsively done recently awarding Rs. 35 lakhs to doctors of JNIMS because a COVID-19 patient has recovered, more gainful use of all resources available should be the priority at the moment. All dedicated health workers, doctors, nurses and all others who are involved in the upkeep of the COVID-19 health facilities now, deserve awards and much more, but after the crisis we are in is put to rest. There is another reason for our assertion. If in the coming days more patients arrive and more get cured, will the government have the same award for them? By the same logic, if amidst the crisis, some patients die, would the government seek to punish health workers?
  • The government must also make efforts to bring back stranded students and migrant workers from the state back home, and plan ways to have them go through suitable quarantines before being allowed to merge with their communities. If there are some who are ill, government must make plans for their identification and internment at the designated hospitals. Many of them in not so well-paid jobs, understandably are drained by the lockdown and are now in financial dire straits, so the government must make plans to bring them home without cost.

Last but as important as any other factors, the government must take general poverty of the people seriously. The lockdown in Wuhan, Rome, or London cannot be equated with a lockdown in Manipur. There is a world of difference in the affluence level between Manipur and the former. Here there are so many with little or no savings and have to live out of daily earnings. Few would have refrigerators or other cold storage devices for perishable foodstuffs at home. Once upon a time, practically everybody had a kitchen garden where vegetables are grown and private ponds where fish are reared. But in urban centres like Imphal, the spaces and culture for these have all virtually withered away. Hence, while those in Wuhan and London etc., can afford to last out quarantines and lockdowns serenading from their balconies, lockdowns obviously mean a completely different thing, and sometimes even a life threat, in places like Manipur. Instead of cash awards and other extravaganza just as yet, the government should instead think of ensuring survival ration and survival cash reaches every desperately needy family. If this caution is not taken seriously, we may even have a law and order situation amidst the current trouble.

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