Tamil Nadu

Analysis | To lockdown, or not to lockdown

An Avadi Municipality worker spraying disinfectant.

An Avadi Municipality worker spraying disinfectant.   | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami clarified in a tweet the morning of June 12 that his government had no plans of intensifying a lockdown in Chennai or neighbouring districts. The State government later told the Madras High Court that it had no intention of imposing lockdown even in parts of Chennai city.

The categorical declaration is welcome because it scotches rumours of an intense lockdown in Chennai through WhatsApp messages that began a wave of speculation on social media, not to mention panic. It is also worthy of appreciation because it is the right step in the circumstances. Intensifying a lockdown would serve no purpose now, and our memory of the panic buying that precedes an intense lockdown and the emergence of subsequent clusters of positive persons is recent, and rather raw.

A lockdown has certain limited, albeit important purpose — it slows down the transmission in order to help health systems gear up to meet the upcoming demands on the health care facilities. Global experience does show that a lockdown does not spell the end of the epidemic, it only postpones the inevitable — a rise in the number of cases. Countries that have managed to slip into a phase where lockdowns have been lifted and free movement allowed, such as Italy or China, have done so after they experienced a high number of cases and sharp hikes that took the curve nearly vertically up. Post the lifting of a lockdown, recommended once the country has bolstered its health care facilities to meet the surge in demand, the experience has been, internationally, a rise in the number of COVID-19 positive cases.

Opening the borders was necessitated not only by economic concerns, but also humanitarian ones, and the sheer impossibility of a nation state to exist in a lockdown vacuum for beyond a specified period. Resuming inter-district and inter-State movement, besides stranded Indians returning from abroad did increase the number of cases, but a careful examination of the numbers released by the Health department everyday indicates the big threat is not so much from outside, but still inside, in the city of Chennai, and neighbouring districts — Chengalpattu, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram. Even as the number of people coming from outside the State grew and positive numbers from this subset increased, but the bulk of the positive cases were still coming from these urban and peri-urban centres.

The original lockdowns did serve their purpose — they helped bolster a health system to meet the specific requirements of COVID-19. Tamil Nadu has been augmenting bed capacity and has even made fresh appointments of health workers to meet the burgeoning demand. But physical infrastructure can only be enhanced up to a finite point, this enhancement is not limitless. The purpose of a lockdown, then, will scarcely be served here. Instead, at this stage, it will, by prolonging the epidemic, cast a further burden on the health resources and exacerbate project fatigue.

The rash of rumours on WhatsApp also paint a picture of doom, speak of a complete lockdown, trying to whip up a panic-buying spree among recipients. The last time that happened, things did not go so well. When the Tamil Nadu government decided to intensify the lockdown in a few districts in the end of April, lack of proper planning at that stage led to massive crowds of people heading out to buy groceries at markets, with little concern for physical distancing, even without masks. There was a similar rush after that lockdown ended. That led to a cluster of positive cases, reflected nearly two weeks later, and the Koyambedu cluster is now a textbook case for the spread of infection. The State, already battling a rising trend in the number of positive cases, is scarcely in a position to handle a new series of cluster episodes, say doctors handling cases on a daily basis. Having a lockdown at this point would be akin to the State sponsoring a cluster phenomenon.

Watch | What turned Koyambedu market into a COVID-19 hotspot?
 

What is urgent though, is the need to enforce, strictly, COVID-19 hygiene and etiquette in dense, urban centres. Effective behaviour-change communication, that would convey to the people that simple methods like mask wearing, washing hands with soap and water, using hand sanitisers, and keeping distance between themselves and others, would go a long way in preventing the spread of the infection, is the need of the hour. Better crowd control, more aggressive testing, determined enforcement of COVID-19 etiquette, with graded punitive action for violations of both quarantine conditions and etiquette violations will be the way forward.

A more sustained, evidence-based, measured approach to the battle ahead is what is required now, not a reactionary, knee-jerk reaction with a myopic goal. The Tamil Nadu government has taken the right step by rubbishing rumours of any lockdown, but it needs to persevere towards ensuring better conformity in what are essentially very simple regulations.

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 1:31:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/analysis-to-lockdown-or-not-to-lockdown/article31813046.ece

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