For the past four days, Indians used to the blare of horns, the drone of engines and the clamour of busy streets are waking up to silence, or more unusually, birdsong. On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day ‘total lockdown’, prompting tweets and comments about this being the largest quarantine in human history.

Most of India’s 1.3 billion people are staying home, joining millions from China, Italy, France and the UK as governments try to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. More than 18,000 people have died and over 400,000 infected worldwide. In India, the number of cases has crossed 600.

“This is the largest concerted effort at social distancing in human history," said Dr. Jacob John, professor of community medicine at Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore. “The world has never been so connected, and, therefore, this is the world’s largest lockdown. That, of course, is not the theoretical term but it’s the one we’re using," he said.

For specialists, the words ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolation’ are linked to disease. Those suspected of having the disease are quarantined or separated from healthy populations, a practice that dates back to the times of the Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece even before the concept of germ theory was known. Through the 14th century, ships were quarantined to prevent the spread of the plague, and even today customs officers routinely quarantine animals or plants coming from abroad. Quarantine is a form of prevention, and not everyone exposed to a pathogen will fall sick. Isolation is the term they use for people who contract an infection. Think of being put into a separate room when you have chickenpox or the flu.

“This is the largest shutdown in human history for several reasons. The world population was never this large. We never had such an extensive experience of a highly infectious agent sweeping across continents at such speed," said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India.

“This lockdown is for the entire population to create social distancing. We have not reached anywhere near the largest quarantine in history in India. For that you would have to put the largest number of infected people in a separate facility of some kind," said Dr. John. “We’re just telling people to reduce contact."

Technology policy researcher Pranesh Prakash has been reading about people’s experiences during quarantines in the past and he says some things don’t change much whether it’s measles or Covid 19—boredom, anxiety, and worry about others not following quarantine measures are recurring themes. “Now we have hashtags, that’s the only difference," he says.

The lockdown will buy India time to shore up healthcare infrastructure.
The lockdown will buy India time to shore up healthcare infrastructure. (Photo: Reuters)

Having access to the internet enables a small class of the population to remain productive, while allowing communication and socializing, but fears about access to food and essentials remain. “Relying on the internet for information has some advantages but now we see a lack of communication and organisation by governments," he says. “We need clear messaging and real solutions to protect those without an economic safety net."

Having the internet during a crisis, however, can provide ground-level information from people, which can help policymakers. “In times of crises, a lack of information is often the reason for bad policy decisions," he says. During the Emergency or China’s Great Leap Forward, for instance, it’s been shown that a lack of accurate on-ground reporting, due to censorship, was a cause for continued poor policymaking. “The internet now allows poorer people a loudspeaker. We are not dependent on local authorities. But this also depends on whether governments look for this information online."

CLOSED, FOR NOW

The lockdown is essential, say experts, but not a complete solution. A lockdown will delay the time when cases peak, but this also depends on how much people distance themselves. “This is a train that is moving, it’s very difficult to stop," says Dr. John.

The lockdown will buy India time to shore up healthcare infrastructure. India is short of doctors, nursing and paramedical staff, ventilators, and beds, and a lockdown could help prevent the system from being overwhelmed.

“These three weeks will be critical to what happens in June-July," said Dr. John. “The government has bought time to focus on health infrastructure. You’re not going to break the cycle of transmission in 21 days."

This is why messaging is important to ensure that people understand that social distancing is likely to be part of our daily lives for some months. “This is going to hit the economy, and seriously affect people already facing deep inequity, but it is still the right decision in the context of trying to save lives," said Dr. Reddy. “Quarantines are a difficult time. It is our collective responsibility to protect both the medically and economically vulnerable sections. I hope people will come out of this more respectful of nature, less consumerist, less frenetic in their approach to life."

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