Are lockdowns really necessary?

Prof GT Thong

There are so many theories, and so-called conspiracy theories about the 2019 coronavirus, and precautionary measures that need or need not be adopted. This includes the dreaded ‘Lockdown’, which is far more damaging than the virus itself. Somehow, one cannot help feeling like a pawn in the grander scheme of things. But that is a story for the future by the experts.

India’s massive lockdown in March, when just a handful of cases were detected, utterly failed to curb the spread of the virus. The simple reason was that the super brains of the country that advised the Government, failed to foresee the massive migrations that would take place across the country due to sudden loss of tens of millions of jobs and lack of shelter, food and water. This wave would eventually also be greatly responsible for the rapid spread of the virus through the length and breadth of the country. The first lockdown, and those subsequently, was the cause of much misery; it was indeed a curse for the lower strata of society, for no fault of theirs.

The wealthier class and the government employees who are assured of their salaries no matter what, are not affected at all, except for the freedom to move around as one would have wished. On the other hand, the weaker sections of society, probably more than 75% of India, were devastated by the impact of the harsh lockdowns. The common man is also at his wits end as far as health services across the country are concerned. Many private hospital owners in the larger cities and probably elsewhere are gleefully counting and hoarding their ill-gotten gains every day. And then we hear of atrocious GST rates on COVID-19-related medical items, which the government insists is to keep the prices low. This production-distribution-tax economics is way beyond my grossly limited knowledge. Education has been badly hit as well. The wealthy, etc. again have nothing to lose with all facilities, and more at hand. Those hurt are the aam admi. Their children have nothing to gain, and everything to lose. The daily wage earners, the cultivators, farmers, etc. have lost everything. Some help from the government was visible during the early days; no one is sure how long this help will continue, if it is indeed continuing. What then?

Nagaland has come a long way since 20th March 2020. It has been one long series of total and partial lockdowns. We had lockdowns even when Nagaland was free of the virus. Then tragedy struck! Today, we are like any other state of India, with the virus spreading all over. One area gets sanitized and the virus pops up immediately in other areas, as in Kohima these days. The reasons are varied, but known to some extent by most.

My experience of Kohima town was one of horror every one of the six days I left home this lockdown to attend official meetings and banking, marketing, etc., all rolled in one. First, the administration issues strict instructions regarding the use of face masks but many people do not bother to adhere to rules and tragically, there is no one to ensure the rule of law. In many cases of those actually using a mask, it is a chin mask. For some others it is a mouth mask, the nose being left free to smell and snort its way around. Second, the public are warned to ensure social distancing, but who cares! Forget private institutions, even a public sector bank at Kohima (I visited one and left without any transaction after seeing the crowd jostling around) does not have the concept of ‘Social Distancing”. An attempt to walk through the alley on the side of Kohima Local Ground, between the Super Market complex and the NSF office one day gave me the covid-19 chills. The crowd of vendors along the path and the larger crowd of shoppers did not leave any breathing space in between. The only option was to take a detour through the town’s main street. Walking along this street too is highly hazardous. A really scary sight is the large crowds, like any normal day of the past, and without social distancing. Third, the Government insists that every commercial center or institution should have sanitizers, and water and soap for use of visiting public. Well, the bad news is that even some public institutions do not provide the same. Government authorities willing to confirm the same may make surprise visits; some wily ones, those of good fortune having read this damaging article may immediately take up damage-control measures, not without curses.

Certain troubling questions related to this pandemic occasionally crop up. Experts say that living with the virus will be the new normal. Then, is the lockdown a part of the new normal, or at least, till a vaccine is in place? If so, with a vaccine not visible in the horizon, at least this year, will this not change our already miserable lives, for the worse?

With all the misery around, and seeing that lockdowns have not brought the desired results, is it really necessary to continue totally, if not partially? The struggling common man desperately needs work. Those in their ivory towers will never know the hell he goes through every day. So, the million dollar question is, is there an alternative to lockdowns? Perhaps yes, if we, the public, adopt the new social norms of using masks, keeping safe distance and being hygienic. Those who find it difficult to breathe with the masks should be forced to stay at home. But again, can we? Of course we can; with fresh orders from the administration and backed by a whole lot of police personnel in town to ensure that the orders are followed in letter and spirit. Of course, it will be a daunting task for the police alone, but Nagaland, unlike other places, has a lot of well-meaning civil societies. These, in the form of youth organizations, tribal and student bodies, village and colony/ward councils, etc. have always come to the aid of the Government in the past. An earnest appeal will definitely not fall on deaf ears. Once we, the wayward public are disciplined, their presence will not be required. The police task force too can then be reduced to a large extent. Video cameras at strategic locations can also help identify wrong doers. Punishment in the form of fines on the spot, jail terms, etc. depending on the enormity of an offence, will definitely do wonders; even tigers will become tame kittens.

For this to happen, we also have to know where and how the virus spreads. The frontline workers have their work badly stretched out for them. Besides the new-routine work, some of them are also involved in contact-tracing, which is also a very time-consuming and painful process (why this additional work for the negligence, stupidity and/or arrogance of a few). As they are very careful, chances of them getting infected is extremely low (except for the early days when someone in authority decided to earn a quick buck by getting useless PPE’s for highly bloated prices. Luckily Nagaland was virus-free those days; but the culprits should not go unpunished). As mentioned above, there are some people around who care for none, not even their families. They must get their quota from their favourite booze joint where the concept of social-distancing is non-existent. Some are deep into substance abuse and supply, so travel the length and breadth of town, and beyond into the neighbouring villages, to get and sell the illicit stuff and share the virus, if infected. Then we have people bulldozing their way through the crowded streets, for whatever reason. They have no concern at all. They may be spreaders or they may get infected, but who cares! We are scared of the virus only within the confines of our homes.

Nothing is impossible if we put our minds to it, and with the spine to back it. Singapore is the perfect example - one good leader with a single agenda changed the beggar state into a super economic power. There are a few countries today where lockdowns rules have been relaxed to a great extent or lifted, and where life has come back to normal. Their well-meaning governments and cooperative citizens have together brought about these changes. So, why can’t we? If harsh measures are required, so be it. But, change is a must for the overall good.

Lord, grant us Civic Sense!