It is true that the government must ensure enough isolation capacity, given the country’s large population and the density in urban centres, where the disease is being reported at the moment.
Premier institutes across the country, including in Maharashtra, the state with the country’s highest number of Covid-19 cases, are shutting down their hostels, and asking their students vacate these within a short deadline. Since shared facilities like toilet, and dining areas, especially with tight meal-timings, mean easier transmission, this would make the states’ decision seem sensible. Possibly, states are even marshalling hostel rooms and other such lodging to use these as isolation facilities in the inevitable case that the healthcare infrastructure is overwhelmed, if community infection breaks out and the disease assumes epidemic proportions. There are about 1 lakh ICU beds in India, and 1 hospital bed in a public facility for every 1,800 Indians against the WHO recommendation of 5 for every 1,000. Even if you add the private healthcare capacity, the hospital bed density is likely to still fall short. Given such a scenario, the government commandeering public-funded facilities—IIT Bombay, for instance, has 17 hostel buildings—to set up isolation centres would also seem logical.
However, what this ignores is that the contagion is on the rise. By February 20, there were three confirmed cases. This number increased to 44 on March 9, 84 on March 11, and was 206 as of Friday. Forcing students to undertake travel over long distances to their homes increases the risk of community infection spreading, even to geographies that the disease hasn’t reached so far—IIT Bombay announced the decision to shut down the hostels on Tuesday night, and gave students until Friday night to vacate the facilities; a large number of students forced to travel in a short time-window is surely not a safe bet against contagion? Indeed, global experts, and the government, have been championing social distancing and avoiding non-essential travel—the PM’s speech on Thursday night underscored the importance the government is attaching to this as part of its Covid-19 strategy. Thus, forcing students to undertake travel needlessly, with likely elderly relatives waiting for them at home—the fatality, across countries, is the highest among the elderly so far—unnecessarily increases the risk of community transmission. Even if hostels were to be vacated, this should have been done weeks earlier, when the risk of contagion was lower—Kerala got the hostels at the Cochin University of Science and Technology vacated, and had already prepped these to serve as isolation wards earlier this month.
It is true that the government must ensure enough isolation capacity, given the country’s large population and the density in urban centres, where the disease is being reported at the moment. But, this can’t come at the cost of opening of new contagion-risk windows. What governments can do, though, is take a leaf from Delhi’s book and rent hotels, guest-houses, and other such facilities, and convert these into isolation facilities. Given the slowdown the hospitality sector will see because of the pandemic, this will also be a lifesaver for the sector.