That bad news must reach the top faster than any other is a cardinal principle of operational efficiency, and this is all the more so in a setting where critical decisions of life and death must be made. While a day-long “janata curfew" on Sunday may have done its bit to signal that tough times are upon us in India, with the deadly coronavirus in our midst, it is the sustained lockdown of 75 affected districts, as advised by the Centre, that could make a difference. The reality that we now confront is too grim for half measures anymore. Claps and bells may have focused minds, perhaps even kept some people calm, but our official count of infections and toll of deaths cannot mask the true scale of the crisis as a stark fact glares itself clear: the sneaky little killer has escaped its muzzle. Make no mistake, it has broken loose. The clock is now ticking on an explosion of cases, and time is of the essence for healthcare not to crash under an overload. If we are to avert a horror of Indian multitudes gasping for air as their lungs scrunch in, its spread must be squashed. For this, even as we look West for analysis, it is highly advisable to adopt the East’s resolve. While zonal clamps are welcome, as also the suspension of trains and public buses till 31 March, we may soon need all-India action.
China tripped itself up in trying to gag the messenger who first raised an alarm over the new virus, the late Dr. Li Wenliang, but acted swiftly once it grasped the message. Its Hubei province, the world’s first flashpoint, had less than 500 confirmed cases when it shut down on 23 January, though a back calculation that accounts for the lag between infection and detection suggests it actually had five times as many people infected. Within a fortnight of heavy-handed curfew, its real infections had peaked, it seems, and have fallen sharply since. India is either at the point Hubei was two months ago, or possibly worse off, given our sloppy virus-testing bandobast so far. That is why this is a moment of reckoning for us. Contagion numbers are likely to spiral up from here. If Indians are allowed to go out and mingle as usual, the 100,000-odd intensive-care beds we have in the country—only a small fraction of which are free—could easily get exhausted within weeks. And if the virus fans out far and wide, the curve of cases may get no chance to flatten till it has left a trail of misery.
Unlike China, India is a democracy, and so it won’t be easy to trap people in their homes for very long. Yet, stringency now could save us from calamity. If the economy takes a blow, cushion it. A short and sharp fall for a quarter or two would be better than risking a bigger shock further ahead. How normalcy could be restored can be worked out by and by. To ease restrictions, China has reportedly deployed an elaborate system of e-surveillance to monitor the virus. Beijing is said to be tracking who interacts with whom, and watching vectors closely. Copying this model, however, would not be okay in a country that values the privacy of its citizens. Nor can we assume that data gathered for such an invasive exercise would be reliable. To double down on Covid-19, it’s best to rely on old tools. Perhaps we should paralyse everything except essential services and keep curbs in place till mid-April at least. This will buy us time to scramble funds, ramp up diagnostics, and arm hospitals against the onslaught. It may be our only option. Else, Covid-19 would endanger millions of lives.