Epidemiologists have for a while argued that we have to learn how to ‘live with the virus’. In India, a strict lockdown that saw millions locked up at home was justified because the government needed to up its game in terms of preparation to deal with COVID 19. With just 555 cases on March 24, last year, India imposed a harsh and stringent lockdown.
“Last year, it was necessary mostly for ensuring the health system was well prepared to respond to the sudden rise in cases and to prevent the rate of spread. We have better treatment options and protocols now to counter the surge in cases,” says Professor Giridhar Babu, a well-known epidemiologist. What we are seeing in the country is an artificial crisis, say experts and add that this is avoidable.
The need of the hour is to ensure real-time coordination of admission and provision of critical care to persons with severe disease. Allowing the rise in cases to such levels and imposing a lockdown is a lazy policy approach. It is economically devastating and a public health failure, as the opportunity to save many lives is lost,” he says.
Experts say a complete lockdown of all economic activity is neither called for nor sustainable. “ Strict enforcement of night curfews, isolation of people in hot spots (containment zones), banning all congregations of more than 10-20 people and that too with physical distancing is an absolute must,” says Dr Arvinder Soin, Chairman, Medanta, Liver Institute and Lead investigator, Indian RCT on Tocilizumab in COVID. When we announced a lockdown in 2020, we didn’t know what we were up against. The situation is different now, say experts. A year later, we have two vaccines and the advantage of having an enviable capacity to manufacture vaccines. This should be the big gun in our arsenal, say experts.
Approval of more vaccines should be expedited, and the vaccination drive pushed on a war-footing by opening it out to all adults. They should be administered at all healthcare institutions/industrial premises/community centers/housing societies, and the process should ideally be de-centralised and run by state/district authorities.
We could have vaccinated fast enough to prevent the second wave but we can’t vaccinate fast enough to stop the second wave without intense restrictions. Even if we vaccinated every eligible person in the country today, protection would only kick in a few weeks later. We can barely administer 2 to 3 million doses per day, and we’re not manufacturing enough vaccines to scale to substantially. We’re debating the effect of lockdowns too late. The fact that we’re here despite having hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines and vastly expanded testing capacity is the real tragedy.
We should lift restrictions carefully so that vaccines have time to take effect. We must ensure high coverage in those most likely to have severe outcomes. We should expedite high efficacy vaccines like COVOVAX as higher efficacy vaccines will have the same impact on reducing the peak of the second wave even with lower coverage. We desperately need more doses of vaccines and different types of vaccines.
Locking down a country of 1.3 billion people can surely be an administrative nightmare. So we started by speaking to an administrator with over four decades of experience. Former culture secretary of the government of India Jawhar Sircar thinks the lockdown is a spectacular administrative failure.