To formalise an exit strategy, the government should analyse how the lockdown impacted transmission
All 11 of the expert groups formed by the government to recommend exit strategies from the 21-day lockdown reportedly agree that the exit has to be a phased one. University of Cambridge researchers’ modelling of Covid-19 spread, which takes into account India’s age and dominant social contact structures, finds that the ongoing lockdown will push down daily cases only temporarily. Ending the lockdown on April 14 would mean a resurgence in a matter of days. The study bats for either a 49-day total lockdown or a phased approach, with three lockdowns (21 days, 28 days, and 18 days) with 5-day gaps in between to push down infections to a level where contact tracing and quarantining of infected individuals can prove effective.
While both alternatives in the Cambridge study assume countrywide lockdowns, as per a report in The Economic Times, the Centre is considering a division of districts into green, amber, and red zones—core economic activity is to be allowed in the green zone, with strict social distancing, while only some activity is allowed in the amber zone, and red zone areas remain under an extended lockdown. Certain states have batted for extending the lockdown, and the Centre is likely to take a decision by next week, when the effect of the current lockdown in reducing the spread is clearer.
Many experts have argued that the hit to livelihoods because of the lockdown—more so, if it is extended—could threaten the lives of many more people than the virus itself. But, if government support to the economically vulnerable—delivery of foodgrains by the PDS network, along with income support and other proposed measures—is done right, the hit to livelihoods should prove a secondary concern (albeit still important in the long run).
A government release says that, in the 14 days since March 24, FCI has moved 1.44 lakh metric tonnes of foodgrains per day, against the pre-lockdown daily average of 0.8 lakh metric tonnes. Now, the local government, PDS officials, and the ration shops must ensure that no beneficiary is missed. A phased exit strategy would seem a good option at the moment, but the government needs to keep in mind that enforcing social distancing, especially in the MSMEs, would be difficult.
A report by CNBC says the government may be considering granting reopening permission to only those factories in the green/amber areas that can arrange for accommodation of workers within premises, ensuring hygiene, sanitation, and medical care. This will, without doubt, drive up costs for companies, but is the pain that everyone, from individuals to corporates, will have to take on, especially if further research shows that, in the absence of effective pharmacological interventions, drastic non-pharmacological ones such as lockdowns are the only way out.
Even as an exit strategy is formalised, the government’s top priority has to be avoiding a scenario where the country’s healthcare system is completely overwhelmed. Given the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy imagines a demand of 4.75 lakh beds with just 0.5% of the population infected—for perspective, government hospital beds in the country total just over 7 lakh—the government will have to walk a tightrope on the exit decision. The virus has a 5-14 day incubation period, so the effects of the lockdown will become clear only in the week after it ends. It would be premature to take a call on an exit strategy before the government has this analysis in its hands.