Beyond numbers: Instead of defensiveness and lockdowns, focus on what works: testing, hospital access, masks

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India’s rising Covid tally has propelled it ahead of Russia, with just the US and Brazil ahead. This makes the plaudits on imposition of among the world’s most stringent lockdowns having staved off Covid in India look somewhat premature now. What can still be salvaged is the official and individual responses to the pandemic. Unfortunately, we continue to fall short despite four months of accrued institutional knowledge. Take the case of Karnataka, which was forced to recall a ludicrous order withholding Covid test results to patients after sowing immense confusion and difficulties for patients requiring hospitalisation.

Overregulation and placing hurdles for testing haven’t helped any state. Conversely, there is evidence that ramping up testing – as was done in Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai – is contributing to greater recovery rates. Or look at Thiruvananthapuram where a week-long lockdown was imposed at short notice, reminiscent of Centre’s Lockdown 1.0, after a mere 27 cases were detected on Sunday. Citizens soon started dialling police stations for groceries and essential supplies, forcing the besieged city police to plead it “cannot become an online supply chain company overnight”.

Lockdowns work only if administrations utilise the time gained to put effective Covid fighting strategies in place. In any case, given the harm already done to the economy, they are past their effective expiry dates.  At best lockdowns merely postpone inevitable surges in infection; moreover they have been hobbled in practice by poor state capacity and inability to anticipate consequences (such as the migrant exodus that took place after the first lockdown). Delhi has learnt this the hard way. The capital is finally expanding healthcare facilities after the lockdown’s crippling restrictions had immobilised health and administrative workers.

From dialysis to chemotherapy, lifesaving medical procedures are still being denied to needy patients across cities. The true cost of lockdowns, including earnings lost, internal migration, hungry stomachs and lives disrupted remains largely unknown. Image management to surmount poor governance spins unlocking as the culprit for Covid spurts and then generates enough fear psychosis to legitimise repeated recourse to lockdowns. This lock-unlock game is economically unsustainable, more so with a belligerent China at the door. India’s testing has inched up to nearly 2.5 lakh a day but daily test positivity rates are 10% or so. India needs to scale testing up till positivity rates fall steadily for weeks on end. Testing and masks, not lockdowns, will safely get us to the bend in the curve.

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

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