Did Covid merit such an intense lockdown?

Bharati Jagannathan | Updated on May 13, 2020 Published on May 14, 2020

Holed in: Migrant workers are bearing the brunt of the lockdown   -  THE HINDU

If there is no unprecedented spike in number of total deaths, then the pain caused by the lockdown cannot be justified

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”, quoth Mark Twain. We could add a fourth, pretence of statistics in the absence of it. All of them in the service of analysing Covid-19.

Early data on mortality rates suggesting a frightening 3-4 per cent fatality were eventually rubbished when wider testing revealed that almost four-fifths of all infected persons were asymptomatic, only about 15 per cent developed serious symptoms, a smaller set still needed hospitalisation, and that the actual mortality rate is probably about 1 per cent.

This is not to suggest that there is no need to worry and that we can put on our dancing shoes again and go party. Coupled with the probability of 60 per cent of the world’s population getting infected, three mortalities for every 500 people in the world is a frightening prospect.

India imposed one of the severest lockdowns anywhere in the world in response to the crisis. While the privileged participated in recipe challenges while ruing the absence of domestic help to clean up afterwards, migrant workers were corralled in make-shift quarantines with irregular food, and lakhs of wage earners who still have a job are staring at uncertain futures; with the economy in free fall, there is no telling what jobs will remain three months later.

In fact, it is hypothesised that if this state of even partial lockdown and depressed economic activity continues very much longer, we may see more deaths from hunger than from the virus.

The current measures of distancing seek simply to spread the disease over a longer period. In other words, flattening of the curve may simply stretch the disease and resultant mortality over perhaps a year rather than have it all descend in a matter of weeks — the hope is that some lives at least may be saved if enough medical facilities are available, and perhaps, a vaccine may be found before the virus has gone through all of us.

It is not news that tuberculosis affects as well as kills more people in India each year than the novel coronavirus is projected to, and yet, neither the government nor civil society has ever considered it enough of a threat to plan action around it.

The poor take a hit

Officially, India has about 46,000 Covid-19 active cases (over 71,000 reported cases) and about 2,200 people have died so far (as on May 12). We are told everyday that the early imposition of lockdown has worked wonders in checking the spread. Clearly, the poor are beyond the visual range of both policy-makers and analysts: how else does one understand this obliviousness to the effect of the lockdown on the migrant workers who first gathered in their lakhs for the few buses to get home, or proceeded to walk hundreds of kilometres across States, and queue up at food distribution centres?

Secondly, among those of the working poor who have stayed on, how many can practice any sort of distancing? Families live crowded together in single room tenements with toilets typically shared by several families. This is in pucca buildings.

Slums often have only a couple of water outlets at which women jostle for their turns; this will only worsen as the summer intensifies. It is in such places that your chemist’s assistant and hospital nurse live, where your plumber returns to sleep at night.

I sit in my comfortable house typing up this essay on my laptop, scrupulously maintaining distance from all except my immediate family while a stream of sabziwalas bring a rather sorry collection of vegetables and fruits to my doorstep. What can any lockdown achieve when the vast majority of essential service providers lives in such conditions that they are compulsorily in close physical contact with hundreds of others, any of whom might be a carrier of the virus?

This is not a lament about my/our lack of safety; far from it. My purpose is to point to the intense myopia in our middle-class citadels endorsing the lockdown. I am reminded of the Mahabharata story of Parikshit who, cursed by a sage to die of snakebite within a week, built himself a sealed fortress on a tower.

But Takshaka, the king of snakes, transformed himself into a worm and entered a Brahman’s gift of fruit for the king and, once within the stronghold, changed back to his original form and fulfilled the terms of the curse. If nothing else, the impossibility of creating an airtight bubble to exclude the virus should itself be an argument against extending the lockdown in Indian conditions.

Lower fatalities

There was early speculation that India has fewer cases of infection owing to: exposure to malaria; BCG vaccinations in childhood; or warm weather hindering the spread of Covid-19 like many other influenza viruses.

Till we realised that it was the effect of abysmal levels of testing. The virus has definitely been around since February; was it then so enthralled by the wonders of India that it took an extended vacation from spreading till reaching the much-maligned markaz in Nizamuddin? Did the glories of Gujarat stun it into immobility during the Namaste Trump event?

Did Vishnu’s Sudarshana chakra make it flee from the 50,000 daily devotees at Tirupati till March 18? But it is true: the (admittedly low) testing shows that only 4 per cent of the tested populace is infected even now.

Official statistics on Covid mortality are likely to be skewed for the simple reason that only those who were positively identified as infected can be counted among its fatalities. Things are complicated further in India by a long-standing practice of under-reporting deaths from infectious diseases.

However, there’s one set of data that is entirely missing. While we may never acquire real data about the reasons for mortality, death per se cannot be hidden. What is the average daily/monthly number of deaths in India? Have the April figures shot up by a significant degree?

Cremation and burial grounds require death certificates and, I presume, maintain records of the number of funerals each day. This is a call to journalists to collect and compile this crucial data so that we can examine the overall death rate.

If, then, we observe an unprecedented spike, we should bow to the advice of the medical experts and submit to an extended lockdown, despite the terrible cost to the marginalised and deprived. If, however, there hasn’t been such a spike after almost 45 days of acknowledged community transmission, we might want to analyse if we in India are comparatively immune, for whatever reason — genetic, exposure to numerous other viral ailments, tropical climate, BCG vaccinations in childhood or Iqbal’s, “kuch baat hai ki hasti miti nahin hamaari”...

It is crucial that this data is immediately created and examined and, if — as one hopes — the dead are not piling up, it is time to start acting rationally.

The writer teaches history at Miranda House, Delhi University

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Published on May 14, 2020
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