India needs a sustainable exit from the shutdown and return to business as usual with a minimal loss to lives and livelihoods
Nearly a century ago, British biologist-turned town planner Patrick Geddes was appointed by the Maharaja of Indore to suggest strategies to fight the plague and save the city. Instead of demolishing run-down neighbourhoods as proposed by other experts, Geddes suggested creating separate community dining spaces in poor settlements and keeping cats as pets so that the rats could be concentrated in a few places in search of food and be killed by the cats. Times have changed and we have made many technological advancements but our approach to fighting epidemics like the COVID-19 can still be simple, fundamental and effective. We have already seen that though the lockdown did slow the spread of the virus, we have not been able to flatten the curve. In fact, there has been a surge in cases ever since we began a graded exit from the lockdown.
So what India needs is a sustainable exit from the lockdown and return to business a usual with minimal loss, both due to COVID-19 and hunger, as the shutting down of the economy has resulted in millions of job losses, especially in the informal sector. The media is replete with images, videos and articles on suffering labourers left to fend for themselves, desperate to get back home.
Thus, exiting the desi lockdown needs unique local solutions and reflection in the broad canvas of national directions. One needs to understand the underlining factors between life and livelihood. The answer to exiting the lockdown is not straightforward. It is not definitive, rather probabilistic. Converging synergy to innovate is the need of the hour.
COVID-19 hotspots and districts with Red, Orange and Green Zones have already been notified. However, much more beneficial confinement zoning can be done at the local level, based on the congestion factor and disease spread, to determine “vulnerability.” For example, a high-density urban area of South Delhi or a slum in Mumbai may have a higher risk factor as compared to low-density suburbs or urban areas. Thus, the congestion factor provides a critical qualifier to determine the hotspots or vulnerability.
Next, all economic activities are not essential nor urgent and an assessment of essentiality is a crucial qualifier. The key is to decide between vulnerability (life) and essentiality (livelihood). Can it be done at the local level? The local administration can surely identify organic economic activities better than the centralised administration. Though vulnerability and essentiality must guide the decision-making process, let us recognise that a complete exit is only possible once the herd immunity is in place or we have a vaccine and medicine to stop and cure the contagion. Till that time, a basket of intelligent strategies to sustain necessary activities for survival may be useful.
Micro-confinement zones: Delineate the micro-zones at the local/neighbourhood level considering the intensity of cases and population density. It is better to have a “laproscopic” approach. Involve social groups along with the police to ensure confinement and protocols. De-confinement can be allowed slowly and sequentially, on a case by case, basis.
Support, incentives and disincentives: Support and incentivise the medical, essential and food supply chain (in cash and kind). Support State Governments to create a permanent infrastructure to fight epidemics. Announce awards for an early vaccine, rapid-testing kits, medicines and medical discovery. Continue withdrawal of support or approval to all mass gatherings (religious, sports, large festivals) till the full exit.
Continue to test, re-test, and isolate: Massive, rapid, accessible and affordable testing followed by quick isolation helps in the micro-delineation of confinement zones. Areas with high density of populations, like slums, should be given priority where repeated testing is concerned, week after week. All foreign returnees must continue to go through strict quarantine protocol for months after we have made a full exit so that there is no second wave.
Use the local and social machinery: The COVID-19 curve of India can mislead if it is used for any localised actions. Instead, geographical statistics and curves should dictate local actions. The involvement of community institutions to analyse, forecast and plan ahead may be helpful to decide State and district-level controls and solutions. Use local organisations to share the accountability of making citizens aware of developing immunity to fight possible Corona infections.
To summarise, the strategic position of a slow but steady exit, using separation, sequence and support to appropriate groups is recommended. Extensive testing to delineate micro-confinement zones for better control seems to be useful once accountability is shared with local and social organisations. The exit from the desi lockdown must be sustainable and permanent to avoid a second wave of this contagious disease. Our cities and regions must build resilience against epidemics with the people and for the people. COVID-19 calls for a serious introspection of how we perceive, plan and manage our environment.
(Writer: Uttam K Roy; Courtesy: The Pioneer)