Centre did well to leave red-orange-green zoning to states, the latter must now bridge the gaps in their Covid response.
The lockdown 4.0 guidelines show that the Centre is moving toward a more pragmatic anti-Covid-19 strategy. Instead of deciding on what gets classified as a red, orange or green zone itself, the Centre has left this to the state governments, which must give due consideration to the parameters laid down by the ministry of health and family welfare. To be sure, the earlier lockdowns helped the country buy crucial time to put in place some healthcare infrastructure by delaying the peak.
And, given how the infection curve is growing—there were 600 cases at the start of the first lockdown on March 25, and 42,000 at the end of the second lockdown; at the end of the third lockdown, the cases stood at over 95,000—lifting the lockdown completely would have been disastrous. At the same time, however, the lockdown has imposed punishing economic costs. Indeed, as chief ministers seem to have indicated in their meeting with the prime minister, a lockdown with the earlier benchmarks for classifying red, amber, and green zones would have meant worse economic pain.
As research by Axis Bank shows, 53% of India’s GDP was from the areas classified as red zone under the earlier benchmarking system. To that end, allowing states to take the call on how to classify zones with attendant restrictions is a good move. For instance, if a Delhi is allowed to label only a containment zone or a buffer area around it as a red zone, it can better monitor movement in the area, as well as conduct more effective contact tracing.
But, for lockdown 4.0 to be meaningful, there has to be a slew of measures that states take to ensure that economic activity doesn’t head into another shutdown after a brief period of resumption due to outbreaks that can’t be controlled otherwise. While the Delhi government has welcomed the Centre’s guidelines and has allowed many services to resume, CM Arvind Kejriwal has to bear in mind that even a small misstep could blow up into an unmanageable crisis.
During the first lockdown, cases were doubling in nearly 4 days, while by the end of the second one, this had risen to 13 days. At end of the third lockdown—certain restrictions were lifted in this period—the doubling period has worryingly slipped to 12 days. This can become a lot worse if Delhi—and this holds for all states—doesn’t move aggressively on testing, identifying cases, isolation, and contact tracing. Indeed, even if the doubling period falls to, say, 10 days, and stays at that level, Delhi would have nearly 1.98 lakh cases by the end of June.
It is imperative that states mount the most rigorous anti-Covid-19 response that they can. This means they can’t simply try to sidestep counting Covid 19 deaths by focusing on co-morbidities as a separate category, or, as Delhi has done, to stop testing the dead for Covid-19, even though bodies will be released as Covid 19 deaths if doctors are reasonably satisfied that infection could be suspected.
While this has been done to curb pressure from family members to test a person who dies at home, the fact is that this will have a significant bearing on effective contact tracing, especially with Covid-19 increasingly getting associated with a number of symptoms that overlap with other diseases.
While testing may not be the perfect answer, there is no ignoring the fact that many states have identified more cases as they expanded testing. Apart from this, states must provide real time updates on Covid 19 hospitalisation capacity (number of isolation, ICU, ventilators free, etc) as well as on Covid 19 preventive gear, like N95 masks and PPEs for doctors, preferably on a publicly available dashboard. Such information is crucial for dynamic policy decisions, as well as giving the public the true picture of the pandemic in the state.