The Exit Strategy We Need

Someday in the future—the immediate threat of COVID-19 would have receded, and we will be able to reopen the country, and get back to the business of everyday life. The adoption of a zonal plan to battle the pandemic has reaffirmed that such a day is further away, at least in so far as the ‘Red Zones’ are concerned. Plans are worthless—if not backed by vigorous planning, and relentless adaptation, in the wake of an evolving public health emergency. It is undeniable that the success of the response to this emergency is closely tied with our societal, and economic existence. The route out of lockdown will be neither smooth, nor fast—but the circumstances necessitate the adoption of a localised approach, as opposed to the one which focuses on centralised declaration.

Decentralise data-sets.

The aim of our COVID-19 strategy is to force the number of fresh cases down by as much as possible—and then to identify, and contain any new outbreaks. The question to ask, therefore, is not merely how many victims—but where they are, and who they are. In short, we need localised datasets—and cues on the geography, and the demography of the cases. For the response to become more effective and less painful, the data-set has to be made more granular.

Develop a localised action-plan.

This requires that all districts are mapped by wards, and talukas. The demarcation in cities needs to be on the basis of colonies, mohallas, wards, and police-station areas. In villages—the dividing factor has to be clusters of villages, and Gram Panchayats. What is needed is the formulation of a a containment plan for each ‘cluster’. This will involve establishing clear entry and exit points, evolving a mechanism for controlling movement, and checking the influx of population from outside. Once a new case is identified in an administrative unit—promptly track, relentlessly trace, and aggressively test.

Revisit the form, and nature of restrictions.

The dilemma is real. While we do not have enough money to stay idle at home, we also don’t have enough confidence in our own safety to go out, and work again. There is a thin line between caution, and panic—and we ought to be vary of the latter. While it is undeniable that some parts of the country are witnessing community transmission, it has undoubtedly been seen only in a few pockets. Identifying these pockets at the level of districts is simply not enough. As time passes by, there is, for instance—a growing realisation that there is little merit in disallowing e-commerce companies to deliver goods to the whole of Delhi, when all the cases here have been recorded in less than one percent of the total area.

Devise the ‘new normal’.

There is a growing need for the response to be more dynamic. Temperature checks at entrances, sanitisers & disinfectants, heavy mask wearing, and other scientifically mandated norms have to be determined, by defining the ‘new normal’ Suffice to say, the way forward will be highly disruptive, for if a bunch of new cases is discovered—movement would need to be restricted again. The experience of other countries has sufficiently demonstrated that manual tracing of cases is not only slow, but also inefficient. Privacy warriors, and compulsive naysayers will disagree, but linking movement with the health database, in a manner which is least invasive to privacy concerns—is now an existential necessity. In the manufacturing sector, wherever possible, the risk has to be minimised by advising workers to stay put, instead of heading home. While working from home may not be desirable, the service sector has to devise strategies to ensure that productivity levels are maintained. In the knowledge sector, distance learning has to be mandated, and entrance examinations need to move online. Localities need to be encouraged to devise local solutions. They could, for instance, install disinfectant-enabled boxes, which could be used to drop deliveries.

Reorient the role of central machinery.

It is not that the centralised response has lost relevance, but that our action-plan needs to be more targeted. Centralised agents of governance need to adopt a more supervisory role, and enable decentralised units to take decisions. Instead of making everyone dance to their tunes, governmental directives need to be more cognisant of the ground realities, and give more elbow-room. To take an example—at the moment, there exists a blanket norm of shifting a district’s zoning to a less restrictive zone, only if no case is reported for twenty one days. This has to be made more flexible; for cities like Delhi may never reach that point, in the near future. At the same time, some nation-wide restrictions on travel, and movement—remain as necessary as before.

Gaurav Sansanwal
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