Lockdowns necessary in fight against coronavirus PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 12 March 2020 09:19
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Sarthak edit 

As on Wednesday afternoon, WHO had reported 118,223 confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection, and 4,291 deaths. India had reported 52 cases, and no deaths by then. The manner in which the disease reached these proportions—starting allegedly from a meat market in Wuhan, China—makes it one of the worst cases of contagion in recent history. Kerala, which has seen the maximum number of cases in India, is enforcing a partial lockdown—schools, colleges, and cinemas will remain closed in the state till March 21. While WHO recommends a 14-day quarantine for people who have been exposed to patients, Kerala is implementing a 21-day quarantine, given reports of patients elsewhere remaining asymptomatic for nearly as long. Such lockdowns and isolation will breach key individual/community rights and freedoms, but are increasingly seeming necessary.

In China, whose lockdown would seem draconian to most, the official figures—which many doubt—show that the contagion is losing steam. President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan on Tuesday, to signal faith in the claim that the country has had some success in putting the lid back on the bottle. While reactions to China’s lockdown—which began with the sealing off of Wuhan, a city of nearly 11 million people, on January 23—have ranged from appreciation to caustic criticism, the fact is it has reported no new local transmission in the past 4-5 days, except in the Hubei province. Daily new infections have come down to low two-digit numbers now, in sharp contrast to the thousands reported just a couple of weeks ago. At different periods in January and February, the Wall Street Journal estimates, China temporarily quarantined nearly 500 million people. It married its muscular lockdown enforcement with rapid deployment of technology and healthcare surveillance.

The fact that Hubei (Wuhan, the epicentre, is its capital) accounts for 96% of the Covid-19 deaths in the country, with the fatality rate in Wuhan at 2-4% vis-a-vis 0.7% elsewhere in the country, is perhaps evidence that the lockdown worked. Indeed, the country’s aggressive efforts received a ringing endorsement from WHO, which said that it “provides vital lessons for the global response”. Italy, reporting the highest number of cases outside China, has imposed blanket travel restrictions, banned public events, closed schools and movie theatres, and suspended religious activities across the country. Even premier American universities—Harvard, Duke, UCLA, among them—have closed campus classrooms, with many mulling over online classrooms till the corona threat passes.

Any manner of lockdown will also have to be accompanied by the colossal testing exercise undertaken by South Korea, one of the worst-affected nations in terms of infection count, but with fatality well below WHO’s average. It is tracing each patient’s movements over the 14 days preceding the infection being detected through digital/PoS transactions, CCTV footage, and mobile phone tracking. This data is published on a government website, and people receive text messages alerting them to a new infection in the area in which they reside or work. It has also waived testing fees for high-risk people—who came in contact with an infected person—and those who test positive, encouraging widespread voluntary testing. Its 500 designated testing clinics—contrast that with India’s 54 at present—have helped it carry out nearly 10,000 tests a day.

Within weeks of the outbreak in China, the Straits Times reports, the South Korean government approved testing kits that returned results in just six hours. A focus on testing instead of lockdowns has helped the country keep deaths low with early detection and treatment, even though the overall contagion number is high. India, quite vulnerable given its large population and high density, should take a cue from these countries. Of course, normal activity will be suspended and growth may even suffer, but that will be a small price to pay.


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