Covid handling — off track, in the air as well

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Published: May 26, 2020 6:15 AM

Railways ignore ‘do gaz ki doori’, so does aviation industry

The sharp jump in infection levels in states that are seeing large reverse migrant flows should, if nothing else, make the government rethink its strategy to reopen the economy.

The sharp jump in infection levels in states that are seeing large reverse migrant flows should, if nothing else, make the government rethink its strategy to reopen the economy. In Uttar Pradesh, the number of infected rose from 4,258 on May 17 to 6,268 on May 25, and in Bihar, from 1,179 to 2,587 over the same period. Part of this was unavoidable, given how migrants were desperate to go back home when the jobs completely dried up after the first lockdown and showed no signs of getting better as the lockdown kept getting extended.

In other words, the infection had to spread as the migrants returned home. Two, given the way infections are galloping, even after many weeks of a fairly strict lockdown, it is clear they are going to keep rising as the economy opens up. And the economy can’t be shut down forever as there is no way the government can compensate people for even a fraction of the income lost due to a lockdown. But, what is worrying is the manner in which some decisions are being taken.

The decision to allow inter-state movement of trains, for instance, was taken when the central government had not even allowed intra-state bus services to restart, for fear of the infection spreading. Apart from the issue of whether the air-conditioning in the trains needed to be redone—to ensure adequate inflow of fresh air—while the prime minister repeatedly spoke of ‘do gaz ki doori’, the Railways was selling AC-3-tier tickets while filling in the third seat/berth as well. It is physically impossible to seat six people in an area—there are six beds in each section of the compartment—while maintaining ‘do gaz ki doori’.

The same seems to be getting reenacted now that air travel is being allowed. The aviation minister first said he was not in favour of keeping the middle seat vacant because that would result in the prices getting jacked up by a third. Apart from the fact that the price ceilings put by the government make that impossible, it was always clear that lockdowns, and social distancing, would impose a cost on the economy, but it was a cost that needed to be borne.

If this wasn’t enough, the minister said that anyone who had Aarogya Setu on their phone didn’t need to be quarantined, but it is clear to everyone that an app on a phone is not a substitute for an RT-PCR test. To compound all this, the national carrier—that has been living off taxpayer money for several years now—had the gall not to implement the middle-seat-empty rule while bringing back Indians from overseas—when it was asked to do so by the Bombay High Court, it even went and challenged this in the Supreme Court (SC).

Amazingly, the SC allowed Air India to carry on selling even the middle seat till June 6. It is difficult to follow the prime minister’s suggestions if, at the same time, his own ministers and PSUs are following a different set of rules. The fact that there is no coordination between the Centre and the states on starting rail, and now aviation services—especially on the vital issue of quarantining—adds to the discomfiture over how Covid-19 is being handled.

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