Identify hotspots: Cluster approach is best suited to contain Covid-19 and restart the economy

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In a major development, a Covid-19 cluster has been discovered in the heart of Delhi that has been linked to at least ten deaths from the contagion. Close to 2,000 members of the Tablighi Jamaat – including foreigners – had assembled for a congregation at the Nizamuddin headquarters of the group between March 8 and 10. While many of the delegates stayed on at the location, some travelled to other parts of the country. Now, at least 24 people who attended the event have tested positive for Covid-19 and nine Indians – six in Telangana and one each in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and J&K – and one foreigner with connections to the congregation have succumbed to the disease.

Focus has now rightly shifted to contact tracing from the gathering, with authorities trying to home in on all the people who had attended the Delhi event. It is imperative that all of them are traced and quarantined forthwith. This raises the question as to why the congregation was not dispersed earlier. After all, the Delhi government had imposed restrictions on gatherings much before the present lockdown. Tablighi Jamaat has said that while it was asked by Delhi Police to send the participants back, it could not move them out because of lockdown called for by Delhi government and the Centre.

That said, the focus now ought to be on fixing the leaks rather than ramping up lockdown measures everywhere. The latter would massively hit essential supplies which are already facing constraints. And if people can’t get access to basics it would make it impossible for them to maintain self-isolation and social distancing. The only way forward is to use the lockdown period efficiently. Moreover, adopting a cluster approach to deal with the contagion, which isolates hotspots, is best suited for Indian conditions. In fact, places such as Singapore and Taiwan are already using this strategy with a fair degree of success.

In India too, after the 21-day lockdown is over, the infection clusters can continue with restrictions while other parts of the country are allowed to return to normalcy. This will not only contain the virus in the hotspots but also allow economic activity to restart. Authorities have already identified ten such clusters across Delhi, UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra. This is a good start and will pave the way for a differentiated lockdown strategy in the future.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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