The second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic has hit India pretty hard. While a significant share of the cases still continue to be from one single state, Maharashtra, cases are rising fast in other states and Union Territories such as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi and Chhattsgarh as well. With rising cases, calls for a lockdown have suddenly become fashionable again.
‘Journalists’ and intellectuals are again piling up demanding a lockdown as India continues to record well over 150,000 new cases every day. The central government, on the other hand, has made it clear that lockdowns and night curfews have limited impact on slowing the transmission of the virus.
Even so, confronted with rising cases, demanding lockdowns appear to have become the go-to response for many in the media and others. This is not to say that the first lockdown was not useful or was altogether pointless. It did have its necessity and utility, which we shall elaborate on later in the article.
Before going into the human cost of the lockdowns, it needs to be made clear that there is very little evidence to suggest that lockdowns are especially effective in eliminating the spread of the virus.
Trends since the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic make the futility of lockdowns in this respect further evident. The first lockdown was imposed in India on the 24th of March, 2020 and lasted three weeks. Three weeks later, it was extended till the 3rd of May. Thereafter, the unlock was on in phases and from June, all spaces apart from containment zones and few other places, restrictions had largely been lifted.
The data from that specific period is noteworthy. From March till June, cases were on the rise all the time despite the fact that the lockdown was in place and numerous restrictions were in order. From June till September, despite the fact that restrictions had largely been lifted, the cases do not show a disproportionate increase or a sudden spike.
What is really interesting, however, is what happens after September. After a peak, cases begin to drop precipitously despite the fact that no lockdown was in place and there wasn’t any strict enforcement of restrictions either. The drop from September 2020 continued well and truly into this year when cases suddenly started increasing in the middle of March.
Even then, the overwhelming share of cases even until a couple of weeks ago were from Maharashtra and Kerala. The sudden uptick could be due to a new variant of the virus, seasonal factors or some other factors, we cannot say for sure and that is for the experts to determine.
Why Lockdown 2020 was justifiable
When the novel Coronavirus surfaced all over the world early 2020, there was very little that any government knew about the virus. What we did know was that the virus was extremely contagious and could be fatal. Therefore, governments worldwide were caught in a situation where there was fire at one end and a frying pan on the other.
Therefore, governments across the world took the tough decision to impose lockdowns in their respective countries. The purpose of the lockdowns was never to eliminate the threat completely. It was to ‘flatten the curve’ of the spread of the virus so that countries had more time to expand their medical infrastructure. The logic was to buy time so that the medical infrastructure could be equipped to handle the growing number of cases.
And India utilized the lockdown period extremely well. Beds were increased, isolation centers were set up, ventilators were procured and more Covid-19 relief centers were established in order to shore up our resources. Meanwhile, the Indian government knew that it could afford to feed the poor until the end of the year.
Thus, while the lockdown would lead to job losses, anarchy and deaths due to starvation could be avoided easily. The lockdown measure was effectively a ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ maneuver and it worked in achieving the desired objective. What it did not succeed in, however, was eliminating the spread of the virus, an objective that was never on the plate to begin with.
Hence, while the lockdown was in place, cases continued to rise and after they were largely lifted in June, cases continued to rise without showing any sudden hike until daily new cases peaked in September at just under a 100,000. Since then, nevertheless, there has been a sharp decline in both new and active cases until March this year.
Thus, enforcing a lockdown now would be pointless because cases would continue to rise just as it did between March and June 2020. Since lockdown did not lead to eliminating the spread of the virus the first time around, it is bizarre to expect that one will now. Furthermore, we can say with some degree of certainty that at some point in the near future, the cases will peak and then start going down again.
In addition, we have a new weapon in our hands this time around against Covid-19. Vaccines. India has focused on inoculating the old and those over 45 years of age and the medical staff first. While there has been criticism of the same in certain circles, trends again demonstrate that the criticism is misguided.
Covid-19 is shown to be disproportionately more of a threat for senior citizens and those with comorbidities such as obesity and the young are relatively much safer from fatal infection from the virus. Therefore, to reduce deaths from Covid-19, it only makes sense that the old are inoculated against the virus on priority.
The human cost of lockdowns
The fundamental reason why further lockdowns should not be imposed, however, is the human cost of it. The economy suffers greatly and India is still recovering from the economic cost of the first lockdown that was imposed. The economic cost is not merely a number on the GDP or the stock market, there are actual jobs that are lost and actual human beings who suffer when they lose those jobs.
And there is sufficient indication that citizens, at this point, will not accept lockdowns as readily as they did the last time around. For instance, after a new lockdown was imposed in Maharashtra, against the recommendation of the Union Government, one fast food seller posted a video online asking the state government to give him poison instead.
In another instance, a video had gone viral from Gujarat where a woman had lost her temper completely after law enforcement officials had reached the spot to shut her shop as per restrictions. In Bihar, students resorted to violence and attacked police officials after attempts were made to shut down private coaching centers as per the orders of the state government.
All of this indicates that patience is wearing thin. While anarchy ought to be condemned, when governments make it illegal for people to earn their livelihoods through ventures which are perfectly ethical and legal right until the moment lockdowns are imposed, there will be pushback. It is not justification for lawlessness but merely a word of caution of what awaits us if lockdowns are imposed against the will of the people.
Small businesses have suffered immensely due to the lockdown and are yet to recover fully. While entire sectors such as tourism and hospitality have been torched, delivery services such as Amazon and Swiggy and Zomato and other avenues where employees can work from home have continued to prosper. Such disparities perhaps explain why lockdowns have support from certain sectors and complete opposition from others because they do not impact everyone equally.
We also have students in Universities who are now looking at an extremely uncertain future ahead and their futures will be further jeopardized if another lockdown is imposed. Schools have either been shut or opening at partial capacity.
Children who are fortunate enough to still be able to enjoy the company of those their age will perhaps be able to avoid any adverse long term impact. But those who do not have company their age at home or in the immediate neighbourhood, it could have consequences that show up in the future.
Thus, we need to expedite our efforts to open up schools and universities at full capacity, not impede the process with further lockdowns.
The Mental Health effects
Then, there is the mental health effects of lockdowns. It is undeniable that human beings do not fare well when forced to live in isolation. It is with good reason that forced isolation for extended periods is one of the most debilitating forms of torture.
While lockdowns do not take away the ability of people to communicate with each other, it does rob people of physical proximity and contact which are essential requirements for the mental health of individuals. Communicating with other humans only digitally, locked away from society, is bound to have debilitating impact on one’s sanity.
Humans are social animals at the end of the day. A lot is said about people not observing Covid-19 restrictions and there is considerable moral shaming that is being dished out. But we have to take into account that the lifestyle that Covid-19 restrictions mandate is fundamentally at odds with human nature.
Human beings are not psychologically equipped to live under such conditions for extended periods. Some obviously can but most cannot and it is unfair to blame them a year after of living through constant Covid-19 induced psychological pressure.
Covid-19 is a threat for sure but it is not the only threat that exists. Policymakers will have to take into account other threats that exist in society and respond accordingly. Poicymakers cannot afford a tunnel vision where they focus excessively on the threat of Covid-19 to the point of denial of all else.
Life often involves making a choice between two bad options. Not imposing a lockdown may be a bad choice but imposing it will prove to be infinitely worse.