17th July 2020
The gross failure of public policy and political parties in India in dealing with c19
This email received today says it all:
Dear Shri Sabhlok,
I have only just read your column (Apr 29) on the Imperial College pandemic model and found your email from the Swarna Bharat Party website.
Two and a half months later and there is still, as you mentioned, no party that has commissioned the examining of any model about Sars-CoV-2 with reference to India. I raise this point because the consequences of the national ‘lock down’ have been disastrous. Informal sector work was wiped out almost entirely for more than two months, which led to the return migration of labour in scenes whose desperation absorbed media for some time, but only a short time.
Neither the BJP nor its allies, nor the INC and any other opposition party has paid the slightest attention to inquiring about the behaviour of Sar-CoV-2 in Indian conditions. I had asked, via email, Ministry of Health and ICMR officials several questions in mid-April.
One question was – as I have some familiarity with public health matters – how durable is the novel virus in the ambient conditions found in our rural talukas especially, with 33-35 Celsius, about 65% humidity, about 15 kmph surface wind and in direct sunlight. My reason for asking this question was to understand whether central and state governments had in mind the rural preparation that takes place, every year during the 7-8 weeks before monsoon sets in.
My limited knowledge of pathogenic organisms is that they are very sensitive to such conditions. Moreover, the rationale for ‘lock down’ had in mind a homogenous urban environment, with large enclosed and climate controlled indoor spaces, public transit areas, high streets and commercial business districts with dense transient populations. But our rural talukas are completely different. Why then were ‘lock down’ measures designed for a globally homogenous urban environment being imposed in a country with 180 million rural households?
Another question was about resistance. We have been exposed to malaria (I have had malaria three times), typhoid, enteric fevers, influenza A and B, hepatitis and several other diseases. Had the Ministry of Health or ICMR studied this novel coronavirus on an Indian population exposed to a particularly Indian burden of disease? I received no answer. to any question
But the weeks since have shown how an administrative paralysis when accompanied by around the clock fear-mongering through the media (whose reporting standards are poor at the best of times) has dulled all critical faculties even when the consequences of ‘lock down’ are obvious, with destroyed small businesses, slashed household incomes and a skeletal economy.
What’s much worse is the collateral toll, not because of any coronavirus but directly caused by ‘lock down’ conditions. This has taken the form of especially older people with chronic health conditions (COPD, dialysis, stroke, etc) who need regular expert attention at clinics or hospitals, but who did not go to them out of fear, or who were refused maintenance treatment by them because of the fear of medical personnel.
And there has been the psychological toll, of wage earners plunged into debt and forced to sell their meagre assets to survive, salaried households holding EMIs told to stay at home with no pay. Depression, which is much more widespread in India than is acknowledged, has dogged every working household every day of the ‘lock down’, with the effects on children not dealt with at all by any central or state ministry – a section of the population that is 320 million strong (see for example https://www.livemint.com/news/india/lockdown-has-put-321-million-indian-children-out-of-school-widened-learning-gaps-11590137598404.html) and which all the evidence showed were the least likely to contract the corona virus nor transmit it.
No party, let alone the BJP, has bothered to enquire let alone address these consequences of ‘lock down’. By early May, I again asked the officials questions about what ‘lock down’ decisions were being based on. By then, a number of expert medical views from Europe were available about the infection fatality rate, innate resistance of population by age group, data on the true proportion of those amongst the symptomatic who needed hospital care, etc. All these pointed to an impact on public health that was far smaller and less severe than was made out in early March.
My question to them was that in the light of the daily stream of new evidence, should they not revise and revisit their ‘lock down’ strategy and conditions so that the healthy and earning members of our population could return to their activities. Again no answer. But by May India’s ‘locked down’ population had become by far the world’s largest (China hadn’t locked down nationally) – with no India-specific reasoning or study at all to justify any of it outside what were suspected to be risky zones.
Today, what’s visible and what one hears through friends living in different parts of India is that there are, to paraphrase Naipaul, a million ‘lock down’ models all fuelled by fear and irrationality: housing societies refusing to admit visitors, families whose children have been confined to their tiny apartments for 8-10 weeks, online-only classes (with zero assessment of the quality of learning that can be associated with a computer screen), police forces recruiting vigilante members from the public (Bangalore).
The BJP and INC have throughout this period used covid19 as a political tool. India’s ‘left-liberals’, who have been loud on practically every issue taken up by government, have contributed little to a better assessment of the ‘lock down’ and its widespread effects.
This note has ended up longer than I intended. The country lurches from one day of fearful uncertainty to the next. Regards