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People wear protective masks in awake of coronavirus infection. (Photo: ANI)
People wear protective masks in awake of coronavirus infection. (Photo: ANI)

Opinion | India must shut itself down to contain the coronavirus

As the fable of grains doubling by the square on a chessboard shows, we need to act before it gets too late

The old chessboard fable is repeated often in India. Sometimes it is set in Akbar’s court, and sometimes Vikramaditya’s. The legend goes that the board game’s inventor showed it to the emperor, who was so impressed that he asked him to name his reward. The inventor responded with a request based on his chessboard: “Give me one grain of rice for the first square of the chessboard, two grains for the next square, four for the next, eight for the next and so on for all 64 squares, with each square having double the number of grains as the square before."

The emperor agreed, amazed at the modest request. Or so he thought. Soon enough, he was faced with the power of exponential growth. Halfway through the chessboard, for the 32nd square alone, the emperor owed 2,147,483,648 grains of rice. But this is nothing compared to the problem posed by the second half of the chessboard. By the 64th square, the emperor owed 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice. It is claimed that this 18 quintillion grain pile of rice would be bigger than Mount Everest. Annoyed at being tricked, he is said to have beheaded the inventor.

The emperor wasn’t stupid, he just didn’t understand exponential growth, a concept that is not easy and intuitive to grasp.

The Covid-19 outbreak is similar to the chessboard problem, because in countries like South Korea, Italy, Iran, and now Spain, a clear trend has emerged of the exponential growth of cases. Indians are less alarmed and still participate in large gatherings because they believe India has very few cases. But, in any outbreak of a highly infectious disease, we need to focus not only the number of known cases, but also the growth rate at which these increase. The question is, how long does it take for the number of known cases in a given country to double? In most of Europe and the US, they are doubling every three days.

On 14 March, India had 82 confirmed cases. This seems like a small number, especially given the population. But if considered as a point on the same global exponential trend, it is very alarming. For comparison, Italy had 76 cases on 23 February, but in just 20 days, it went up to 17,660 cases on 14 March. Let that sink in. Italy was late to test people in large numbers and quarantine them, and with cases doubling every three days, it is in a tragic situation with a high fatality rate among the elderly.

On 14 March, India had 82 cases, a number that will change by the time this column is published. At the moment, Indian cases are doubling every 5-6 days. But these are the number of known/confirmed cases. India is not screening everyone, only those who have travelled abroad or been in contact with a confirmed case. And the interesting feature about Covid-19 is that it is possible to have contracted it and be asymptomatic, going about business as usual while spreading the virus. If India is on the same exponential growth pattern as Italy, in three weeks, there will be about 18,000 cases. And these numbers could double every 5-7 days. And by then, it will be too late to contain the crisis. The global pandemic is alarming and there is little sense of that in India at present. We need to be alarmed; only then will people take serious precautions.

India has a few things going in its favour. Thanks to global travel patterns, the virus arrived later than in other countries. This helps us see the patterns of exponential growth elsewhere and realize that we are not “safe", but merely “behind" on the same curve. Some precautions taken early, like stopping foreigners from entering India, also helped. The government has done a good job of rescuing Indians from affected places abroad and testing and quarantining them in India. But this is no longer a “foreign" virus, only contracted by those abroad.

Given India’s young population, however, it may prove harder to contain the pandemic, because the young who show either mild or no symptoms will be out and about, spreading the virus. And it is impossible to test 1.35 billion people.

What can be done? Since the virus is spread by unsuspecting asymptomatic carriers, I would suggest drastic containment measures. In my opinion, the government must immediately shut down all trains, flights, mass transit, schools, offices, places of worship, movie theatres, and stop all large gatherings. This would enable effective social distancing, which will reduce pressure on the healthcare infrastructure. This is the only way to ensure India does not face the second half of the chessboard problem.

Relative to Europe, US, and China, India has fewer doctors, hospitals, and hospital beds per capita. According to World Bank Data (2017), India has eight doctors for every 10,000 Indians compared to Italy’s 41 doctors for 10,000 Italians. If India is three weeks behind Italy on the trend, and if the country does not take drastic containment measures, given our weak healthcare setup, we will register much higher fatality rates, especially among the poor.

While it may seem that shutting down everything right away only punishes the poor, what we need to realize is that it also protects them, for they would surely find it harder to get medical treatment as the pandemic spreads.

One potential solution is to shut down everything and compensate the poor with a policy that assures them a universal basic income of about 1,500 per month. Otherwise, Indians are at risk of losing jobs, health, and much more.

Shruti rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US

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