Unlock moves should continue to protect the vulnerable, as the economy shifts gears
India’s fifth round of unlock regulations for October, allowing a further expansion of public activity mainly in education, entertainment and business conferences, comes at a time when COVID-19 transmission is steady in many cities. Nationally, though, the new infections being added everyday, at about 60,000, represent a decline in recent days, as per Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center data. The stringent March-April lockdown, and the subsequent measures to unlock the economy to prevent an equally debilitating crisis to livelihoods, have made India an uncommon case study. The decision to allow States to consider reopening schools and coaching centres after October 15, for students who wish to optionally attend, will prove a difficult one, considering new research evidence based on data from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh pointing to high prevalence of infection among children who were contacts of virus cases in the same age group. Slowing community spread is bound to become more complicated, since governments blame careless attitudes for continued transmission — notably in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While essential movement for economic reasons, including use of public transport, is unavoidable, indifference towards safe public behaviour is extracting a heavy social cost. Even in the face of a deadly pandemic, governments are taking a benign view of recalcitrant people who do not wear masks, even on buses and trains, spit in public, and crowd commercial locations. During the monsoon and winter months, and the festive season, polite, persuasive enforcement would be essential to reduce infection rates.
Among the relaxation measures in the October unlock phase is permission for cinemas and multiplexes to open at 50% capacity, but the risk surrounding enclosed spaces and transmission from asymptomatic individuals is real. Viewed against the enhanced risk of environments where masks are removed for eating and drinking, such as cinemas and restaurants, these entertainment options may not have wide appeal in the pre-vaccine phase. While the economy shifts gears in the activity phase, the Centre should be focusing on improving the understanding of the health impacts of COVID-19. Disappointingly, while it has emphasised massive recovery rates from the infection, it has failed to standardise testing and reporting methods among States, and publish fine-grained data on types of tests carried out in each State, anonymised patient histories, post-recovery status for complications and mortality. Repeated emphasis on a large number of recoveries, which were expected anyway, but without the necessary caveats, may be encouraging millions to lower their guard. Every effort to relieve the citizen’s fatigue over COVID-19 should be made, but the goal is to preserve health until a medical breakthrough is made.