The Cheat Sheet

Covid-19: The 21-day lockdown is a make-or-break move

Venky Vembu | Updated on March 26, 2020

A bit of an overreaction, isn’t it?

I can see why it appears to be a trifle over the top. Smaller countries with just a fraction of India’s population have experimented with shutdowns in response to the Covid-19 virus, and large countries like China, from where the pandemic spread, enforced it over a limited geography. However, for a nation of 1.3 billion to go in for a total lockdown is somewhat unprecedented.

I imagine it will be horrific for the economy.

Almost certainly, given that it comes at a time when the economy was already struggling to revive.

So, was the lockdown necessary?

For a minute, consider the counter-factual: if this drastic measure had not been taken, and if Covid-19 had spread widely across India. It’s hard to run an economy when people are dying — in the hundreds, even thousands, as would have likely been the case in India. In extreme situations like this, there are no easy decisions to be made.

How are other countries responding?

The UK, which initially embraced the ‘herd immunity’ theory — of allowing the virus to spread gradually through the community and build up societal immunity — has been compelled to review that move and instead enforce limited-area shutdowns after acknowledging that its epidemiological models were flawed. Other countries have taken more macabre decisions.

Such as?

Well, in Italy, an overwhelmed healthcare system is forcing healthcare professionals to resort to ‘social Darwinism’ of sorts by deciding who should live and who should die. Doctors find themselves compelled to make such cruel, heart-rending decisions about who should get a ventilator and a hospital bed, both of which are inadequate to meet the avalanche of Covid-19 cases.

That’s tragic, yes.

Even that is nothing compared to the cynical calculations being made in the US.

I’m afraid to ask, but tell me more.

US President Donald Trump is actively pushing the line, suggesting that perhaps it’s time to end the shutdowns in order to avert a total collapse of the economy.

Wait, won’t many people die as a result?

Almost certainly, but he and his supporters have been making specious comparisons with the number of deaths every year from car accidents and common flu to suggest that even if a few hundred thousand people, particularly the elderly, die of Covid-19, it is an acceptable price to pay for getting the economy humming again.

That sounds perverse.

Exactly. That same argument has been made in India: that the total shutdown is an overreaction. There is perhaps something to be thankful for that the government chose to prioritise human lives.

Even at the cost of the economy?

It doesn’t have to be an either/or decision.

But why do you term it a make-or-break move?

Consider what happens after 21 days: if the virus is vanquished, the government can go full tilt to revive the economy. But if the epidemic is untamed, and a more prolonged shutdown is needed, that could well and truly send the economy down the tube. And this 21-day shutdown will have been in vain. And at that point, a government with a diminishing social capital may be ill-equipped to save human lives and the economy.

That sounds like a truly apocalyptic scenario.

It certainly does. Which is why it’s a make-or-break decision for all of us. We won’t get another shot at breaking the epidemic chain in India.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on March 26, 2020

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