OPINION

Pandemic and panic

While ensuring distancing, govts should not trigger crowding through abrupt changes

The Tamil Nadu government’s order intensifying the lockdown in Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai, Tiruppur and Salem from April 26 briefly convulsed these cities with panic, threatening to undo the gains achieved from avoiding crowding, maintaining physical distancing and preparing the public for a calibrated exit from restrictions. If the idea was to halt the rising rate of infections, which cumulatively touched 1,821 on April 25, the government’s announcement of a ‘complete lockdown’ was counterproductive. Thousands crowded grocery stores, vegetable shops and petrol pumps, with many ignoring safety norms. Anxiety over access to essential goods, particularly among those who do not store articles for long periods, triggered panic buying. Confusion also marked the issue of new passes for delivery agents in places such as Madurai, attracting massive crowds. Such chaotic events are an invitation to disaster, since the dangerous virus is also highly contagious. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami must worry that the government’s commendable efforts to manage the pandemic while raising health system capacity during the lockdown have suffered a jolt. Tamil Nadu’s hard-won gains from quarantine of travellers, systematic screening and monitoring of individuals at higher risk, contact tracing and community surveillance face an unexpected challenge.

Although its fallout will be known in the days ahead, the crowding episode could pass off as an aberration if the focus returns to raising administrative efficiency. This should not be difficult, since the government has a white list of permitted activity. Barring emergencies, care needs of patients with chronic non-COVID conditions and death of kin, the average citizen can weather a lockdown reasonably well if food, medicines and other essentials are available. Longer shutdowns will create other stresses, since no household maintenance work is possible and spares are not available. But the crowding challenge during the lockdown is posed mainly by the use of personal vehicles. Restricting this is feasible if governments can bring essential articles virtually to one’s doorstep or make them available within walking distance. Physical distancing and a ‘no mask, no service’ rule should apply. An expanded permit system for delivery agents not just from online platforms, but authorised local merchants could address this. Such an approach was envisaged even in the Home Ministry’s lockdown order last month, and it assumes greater significance now. Creating scannable codes can help essential services function smoothly and enable easier policing. A system of codes may be inevitable, when select activity such as movement of industrial workers is permitted in future. Periodic lockdowns may also become common, when there are infection spikes. The administration needs refined tools and a consultative process with all sectors for this new normal.

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