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Monday, May 11, 2020

India Fights COVID-19: Concerns and Contrasts!


Photo: indiatoday.in

For the last one week spikes in new COVID-19 cases in India have been over 3000 daily with more than 4000 cases in the last twenty four hours. Fortunately so far, numbers of critical cases and deaths are under control, recovery rate being more than 30% and the doubling rate seemingly stable at around 10 days. In four Indian states, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, the situation is still grim with spikes in new cases and deaths raging. Particularly in Maharashtra, total cases have crossed 22,000, infections in Dharavi—Asia’s biggest slum—rising ominously still and more than 1000 cops of the states getting infected with 7 of them dead. Relaxations given during extension of Lockdown 3.0 for red zones had to be withdrawn here and in several other states. Maharashtra Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray, has admitted that the police forces of the state are fatigued fighting Coronavirus from the front, and a solution needs to be found immediately.

Amid such concerns trains carrying hundreds of thousands of migrant workers to their home states are taking place and evacuation of stranded Indians in foreign countries is also in full swing. Such developments can contribute to the spikes further with around 7 COVID-19 positive persons already detected from the evacuees. We cannot help getting more concerned at the migrant workers being taken to their homes, in tempos, trucks, buses apart from the trains; because some of them could be potential spreaders in the rural and semi-urban belts many of which are still COVID free.

The announcement by Indian Railways last evening to start its passenger train services from 12th May, although limited pairs only with all starting from the national capital Delhi, has come as a total surprise considering the precarious situation, and that phased resumption of domestic flights could have been the far more reasonable option: because a train journey exposes the passengers to possible infection for longer hours, one night to be passed inevitably, having to sit, eat, sleep and use toilets together. What comes as a much bigger contrast is waving norms like social distancing for migrants’ trains allowing the trains run in their full capacity. Of course, the pressure is tremendous, but one can justifiably question the wisdom of this action.

For the regular passenger trains it has been said that booking can only be online in the railway site; however, nothing much has been said about other norms to be followed except for wearing masks and compulsory screening while boarding. Another valid question: how one is supposed to keep on wearing masks even during sleeping hours in the trains, that too in air-conditioned coaches as only AC trains of the Rajdhani Express status are being started? Further, these services are being offered for which class of travelers? While there could be more stranded citizens in Delhi and various other destination stations apart from the migrants, this move could very well motivate other people to travel too for non-essential purposes. Then, just imagine trainloads of passengers from red zone Delhi to grim red zones like Mumbai, Ahmadabad, Chennai or Kolkata, and how those destination states are supposed to deal with these passengers! If there has to be mass quarantine of the loads of passengers for at least 14 days then what purpose would the whole exercise serve, with more regular trains to follow?

Arguments can also be offered in favor of such moves. With hundreds of migrants’ trains already running Railways takes this opportunity to regularize in a phased manner and start earning some revenues too; however, it is much more important for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) to get a boost than a government entity earning revenues. Lockdowns are only temporary measures and cannot be extended indefinitely and an economic consideration is of utmost importance; true, but learning from other nations lockdowns can indeed be extended in a phased manner allowing gradual easing of curbs, and also the fact that in most red-zone states there seems to be no alternative at the moment but to extend lockdowns till at least the end of this month. With the surprise move of starting passenger trains it is almost inevitable to give green signals to domestic flights in selected routes any time now thus giving a boost to the struggling aviation sector; needed, but this would further open up the scope of more spread and infections. Indian experts expect the Coronavirus to reach peak levels only during June-July while international experts believe that the virus is going to stay with us for up to 2 years, and so living with the new normal is the best option; however, curbs must in place and norms must compulsorily be followed so that things don’t go out of control during the peak level.

The crux of the matter is that while you appeal to common people stay at home, follow all norms at every step you cannot afford to entice them in very many ways to move out or travel. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is having a marathon meeting with Chief Ministers of the states today to consider an exit plan from Lockdown 3.0. We fervently hope good and practical sense prevails. India’s effort has been praised internationally, and so it is of crucial importance that the fight against COVID-19 be brought to a logical end or till the challenge of living with the new normal is met successfully. There is also the basic hope that a vaccine gets discovered well within the next two years. 

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