Covid, Lockdown and March By Millions: India On A Crossroad

Kazi Mohammed Sherif

Lockdown refers to an emergency protocol that usually prevents people from leaving a specified area usually the residence.  The word got currency in recent times after China imposed Lockdown in Wuhan city after spread of Covid. The word Covid is now used both for the disease named COVID-19 and the virus which causes the disease and known as Novel Corona Virus -19 or nCoronaV-19. or simply SARS-CoV-2  
Covid virus is a mutated form of corona virus which causes SARS. Novel Corona Virus is highly infectious and can spread, if unchecked, in an exponential rate.

In humans, the transmission of Coronavirus occurs via respiratory secretions (directly through droplets from coughing or sneezing, or indirectly through contaminated objects or surfaces as well as close contacts). Nosocomial transmission ( or hospital acquired infection) has been described as an important driver in the epidemiology of SARS and MERS and has also documented in COVID-19.[1] The normal channel of its spread is droplet infection and perhaps through human excretions also. Till now there is no medicine by which it could be cured. Covid attacks human beings irrespective of their socio-Religico-economic status and identity, But the impact of this virus along with the Lockdown triggered by it, seems to vary so largely on different segments and strata of Indian population that it caused a deep crisis within the country. 

As it is now widely known, Covid originated in China and surfaced for the first time in the modern city of Wuhan, probably in November-December 2019.  The scientists of the country were able to identify the disease, detect the virus responsible for it, isolate the virus and decode its entire Genome sequence within early part of January,2020. The Chinese authorities kept WHO (World Health Organisation) informed about every steps of developments, immediately when those occurred, they also made public the entire Genome sequence of the virus for the benefit of all the scientists across the world without least delay.[2]

As it stated in the Containment Plan prepared by government of India there is a paucity of scientific literature based on community-based studies, and in the available data on host factors is skewed towards cases requiring hospitalization. As per analysis of the biggest cohort reported by Chinese CDC, about 81% of the cases are mild, 14% require hospitalization and 5% require ventilator and critical care management. The deaths reported are mainly among elderly population particularly those with co-morbidities.[3] The fact that 81% cases are mild and only 14% require hospitalisation leads to believe that the majority of Covid infected persons  may remain undetected but can spread disease unless a massive programme of surveillance taken from the initial stage of the spread of the disease. Who has also given most emphasis on tests for detection and surveillance?

Covid made its first appearance in Indian scenario by the end of January, through an Indian student who returned from Wuhan, being infected by the virus. Two more cases of such infection surfaced within a week. By that time WHO, on 30 h January, had declared it as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus[4].

The number of Covid infected people, in India, remained almost static in February, and started to rise with start of March. The number abruptly went up to become 29 on 4th March creating deep anxiety among people. The very next day the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare, in a suo motu statement placed in the upper house of the Parliament stated that the country has taken the issue of proliferation of the disease very seriously and the Honourable Prime Minister himself was personally monitoring the preparedness and response on a regular basis. It was also stated that a series of actions had already been initiated, including screening of all incoming passengers at the air ports, to prevent entry of the disease and to contain it. He assured all members of the House that the Government was taking all necessary measures to prevent spread of Covid in India. He also informed that the government was preparing plans to evacuate Indian citizens from Covid affected countries.[5]

During the mentioned period a large number of Indian citizens were in abroad, who went due to various reasons like as student, on business trip, as professional, as tourist etc. A large number of skilled and unskilled labours were also working in abroad, specially in countries of middle east. While the former group belonged to influential rich and affluent families the later one belonged to families from poor and marginalised segment of population. When it was perceived by those marginalised persons that the government is averse to evacuate labours, but keen to bring back former group only, deep anguish and strong resentment against incoming air passengers formed within them. Those persons were rightly apprehensive of the possibilities that the incoming passengers of international flights will carry the virus to India which will spread and ultimately will turn into an epidemic, very badly affecting the poor and marginalised population. Those incoming passengers being the only source of entry of the virus to this country those people were in demand of a complete suspension of all incoming flights. But the  people belonging to the upper strata have the capacity to influence policies in their favour, and incoming flights could not be halted but a series of travel advisories were issued beginning on 26 th February, urging Indians to refrain from tour of virus affected countries and also to refrain from non-essential tours[6]  Later more restrictions were added but it fell short of announcing a total suspension of incoming international flights.

In the meantime the World Health Organisation (WHO), after the world wide number of confirmed cases  surpassed one lakh, declared the situation as pandemic, on 11 th March,  with a caution that “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly It stated that all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people in the response those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters and those clusters becoming community transmission .[7]   

Had the government suspended all incoming international flights, and initiated a robust programme of detection and containment of the disease, any sane people will agree that all the problems relating to epidemic of Covid had disappeared then and there. An inexpensive simple but bold decision in right direction and in right time was only required to turn the history of this country to some direction better than on which it is proceeding now. No doubt It was a golden chance which has been missed, whatever may be the reasons behind it.

The second option for an effective control of Covid was to introduce a strict regime of universal testing of all passengers of all incoming flights and not allowing any one to freely engage in social activities until found nCovid-19 negative.

It may be stated here that Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) initiated establishment of a network of Public Health Laboratories to enhance capacity for diagnosis and detection of viruses of public health importance in the Indian setting, as early as in the year 2013.  Over the years this network has expanded and currently a total of 106 Virus Research & Diagnostic Laboratories (VRDL) are there in India,[8] Though the country possessed such a  robust infrastructure for test of Coronavirus it took a policy decision to restrict testing amongst symptomatic individuals (i.e., those individuals in whom the symptoms of infection has already manifested) only, along with close contacts of confirmed positive cases and all those who were evacuated from Wuhan or Diamond Princes ship.[9]  Amongst the 106 aforesaid laboratories ICMR commissioned  only 51 laboratories for Covid testing.    As such, till 6 th March, a total no of 4058 samples from only 3404 individuals could be tested.[10]   Though the policy was re-examined at close intervals but it continued till 17.3.2020, to restrict testing only amongst symptomatic individuals, and persons came in close contact with them. It revised its policy once again on 17.3.2020 to make it a little wider to include also asymptomatic persons with history of foreign travel.[11] 

The third option was to put all incoming passengers in quarantine under strict governmental superintendence for at least fourteen days, instead of advisory for ‘Home Quarantine”. Advisory of Home Quarantine  quite often than not breached by many a persons, specially by those who were habituated to defy norms and regulations appearing uncomfortable to them, possessing the capacities to evade all penal measures by dint of money or access to political power.   

However, the growing resentment of such a large segment of people were becoming pronounced and attempts were made by different corners to allay the fear of avoidable epidemic amongst those marginalised populations. The Ayus Ministry  made an effort to make those people believe that the system of Ayurveda  and Homeopathy have their own medicines to prevent Covid.,[12] while another group of political workers were to persuade people that Covid can be effectively combated by drinking cow-urine or by  proper use of cow-dung[13]  Even Government of India came in to  undermine the threat of Covid and declared (13 th March) that Covid is not at all a heath emergency to the country..[14]..

The  Prime Minister , Sri Narendra Modi took an altogether  different route and appealed every Indian  to observe “Janata Curfew” on 22 nd March and bang utensils  with chanting of “Go Corona” for five minutes.[15] The last one, as a remedial measure against looming epidemic, also did not    went down well to the people  as very few people responded to the bizzare idea of chanting and banging. Indicating that the tricks had backfired, resentment amongst aforesaid people reached to a new height. .

Ultimately incoming flights were suspended along with a nationwide Lockdown for 21 days. The Lockdown was declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on late evening of 24 th March and was effected from midnight, without permitting any time to anybody for any preparation thereof. Indeed it was almost an order for indefinite starvation for people who did not have enough food and other commodities stored in their house and also not had means and ways to procure those within midnight. 

The Prime Minister had emphatically stated in his speech that Lockdown  was the only way left to the country but neither mentioned from when and how the situation so much deteriorated nor  did mention why a prior intimation could not be given. .  

Indeed, the situation had much deteriorated by that time.  The total no of confirmed cases on 24 th March had crossed 500 but that revealed a little of the situation. What was most worrisome matter was the fact that, by that time (from January 18 to March 23) a staggering number of fifteen lakh persons were allowed to enter India, as estimated by Cabinet Secretary Sri Rajib Gaubahas,[16]   but without any test.  In a situation where 81 percent of Covid cases are mild in nature and only 14 percent requiring hospitalisation[17], it is easy to understand that a very large number amongst the aforesaid 15 lakh persons might have been infected but of mild nature not requiring hospitalisation and therefore could not be detected. Perhaps they did not know by themselves that they were carrying the virus and spreading it.  The sudden declaration of Lockdown did not include any plan about detection or testing of those persons. While those 15 lakh persons along with their contacts required quarantine and testing, it appeared that instead of quarantine of those persons the entire population of 135 crore people placed under quarantine.

Lockdown imposed in other countries were to create social distancing to curb spread of disease. The measure of Lockdown cannot succeed without whole hearted cooperation and participation of people. But in India the penal measures of Disaster Management Act were invoked as if to compel people by the brute force of the state to abide by whatever Rules and Regulations to be imposed by the state as done during the inglorious Emergency.  

The Prime Minister in his aforesaid address urged every person to remain confined at whatever place they were, and not to venture out on streets. He termed it as a curfew. He accepted that ”the nation will have to certainly pay an economic cost because of this Lockdown” He informed that he was aware of the fact that the Lockdown  will bring a “very difficult time for the poor”,[18] but not explained anything about the cause why adequate prior intimation and planning could not be made instead of hasty impetuous decision. Neither he clarified why only the poor will bear the major cost of economic devastation.

The time and the very manner of imposition of Lockdown, specially why the information of Lockdown not announced in sufficient advance puzzled everyone. It appears that the Chief Ministers were neither consulted nor taken in to confidence while taking the decision. The parliament was in session till 23 rd but neither it was discussed nor members were informed. The cause of the secrecy not disclosed, It appeared to those marginalised and poor segment of population that the manner of imposition of lockdown caused more devastation than Covid and Lockdown did by themselves. Whoever was behind the decision of Lockdown it appeared to those persons that it was not been taken by an authority, generous and benevolent enough as it should have been. It created anguish amongst the suffering lot and raised questions about its real intention,

The suddenness of the declaration of lockdown put almost everyone in trouble but of varying degree and nature. For the poor it was the question of food and other basic needs. For more than forty million people who were working in unorganised sectors to earn daily bread it was the question of loss of livelihood and means of sustenance. For  the millions of migratory workers who travelled long distances for faraway places to work as daily wage labours to earn money for their family members, it was more than like sermon of death, neither money at hand, nor any possibility to borrow,  nothing to eat, and above all no chance of earning and remitting money for survival of their family members. For the sick and chronic patients who resided away from cities it was how to get life saving drugs, for small businessmen, shop keepers and hawkers the question was how to avoid starvation. To the crores of people living in 100 sq ft room in slums or in shanties there was an additional problem of not stepping out on streets because the floor areas of the rooms or shanties in which they were living could hardly accommodate all the persons residing there. In some cases, they live converting the rooms in to a multi tier one and in some cases the footpaths are their place of sleeping. Simply the dictum of remaining confined in house was not affordable by them. But to the rich and upper middleclass families who reside in spacious villas, apartments or flats and are not worried about provisions to meet basic needs of life, those instructions seemed very reasonable and appropriate in view of the spread of Covid. The division between the rich and affluent in one hand and the poor and marginalised on the other widened irreparably as the situation, interest differed a lot and entered almost a collision level.

The meaning and effect of Lockdown to the rich or salaried persons or persons with guaranteed monthly income is something different than it is perceived by workers in unorganised sector, who are not entitled to salary or guaranteed pay. To them it is either loss of earnings or altogether loss of livelihood.  It makes Lockdown in Indian context something different from Lockdown in other countries. This is because  the percentage of salaried workers amongst employed persons has became, due to process of economic reforms,  abysmally low  (22.1%) in India,   in comparison with almost all other countries like Pakistan (39.8%), Indonesia(49.8%),  Thailand (50.2%),China(53.6), Iran(55.2%), Philippines(62.7%),Turkey(67.6%), Brazil(67.8%), South Korea(74.9%), Italy(76.9%), Spain(83.6%), United Kingdom (84.7%), Canada(84.8%), France(88.4%), Japan(89.7%), Germany(89.8%), Russia (93.4%), US(93.8%) etc. where Lock down imposed.[19] It is imperative that, a Lockdown in a country like India where only 22.1% of population amongst employed persons are salaried person (or have a guaranteed monthly income), a mechanism of income protection is first condition of imposing Lockdown, otherwise those who would be victim of loss of livelihood and income  will demand adequate compensation in the form guaranteed monthly compensatory  allowance  till their incomes are restored.

It was a massive blow to the millions of workers who earned their daily bread in informal sectors. It appeared to them as a master stroke to wipe out their livelihoods. Those were the persons who stood solidly behind the nationwide movement against NRC (National Register of Indian Citizens) as they believed that it was a scheme to turn the poor and marginalised in to non-citizens. The movement was initiated by a small group of young activists in Bengal, proliferated throughout India, and with emergence of Saheen Bagh type peaceful, non-violent mass movements a new dimension was added to the movement.  The Saheen Bag movement earned admiration and support of international communities. This movement made it impossible for the ruling alliance to further proceed on NRC. It appeared to those who were fighting against NRC and NPR that the imposed Lockdown along with invocation of penal measures of Disaster Management Act was nothing but a stealth attempt to wreck the indomitable movement. Their apprehensions emboldened when the student and youth leaders associated with the movement were arrested under a draconian law and false allegations raised against them.

However, the most sufferers of sudden imposition of Lockdown were the migratory workers who had gone places at far away, only to earn bread for them and other family members. They were asked to remain confined in their narrow place of living, often in crammed condition, without food and other provisions of life, like prisoners, Perhaps it was expected that in absence of any other option, those people will be compelled to  surrender and  confine themselves in places wherever they were staying,  and starve silently except occasional food doled out to them in charity or by governmental agencies. But those people decided something else. They decided to defy the government order and rebel. They decided to march for their homeland to unite with their family and community members. Hunger and excruciating journey could not deter them. It was a hard decision and more difficult to translate in to reality. Not least frightened by the distance or dangers looming  ahead. It was only the sheer courage and strong determination which made it possible to translate their decision to reality. . Day by day the the March of people swelled turning it to be a March by Millions, creating a new chapter in the history.

This March by Millions had shaken the base of ruling alliance.  It prompted the central government to declare a huge amount towards relief but on a close examination it  revealed that the actual  allotment for those persons confined to only 15 kg rice and 3 kg pulse for a period of three months for each of 80 crore people,  along with a dole of Rs 1500 for each of 20 crore women holding Jan Dhan accounts, and an one time Ex-gratia of Rs 1000/ to each of 3 crore poor senior citizens, widow and disabled. The central govt was also kind enough to increase rate of daily wages by rs 20/ only to make it 200/ for all workers under MGNREA scheme.

Considering the recommended diet (about 40 kg cereal/millet along with milk and other foods) for a young man doing moderate work, for a period of three months[20]  the quantum of ration allotted by central government was not sufficient to keep body and soul together for three months. It appeared to them as a pittance. In aforesaid situation it is little wonder that the announcement failed to create least impact on those people.  March of millions proceeded though encountering huge casualties including loss of life.

While it was expected that the authorities in control, would at least engage in preparation  of an urgent  plan for transportation of all migrant workers to their home, the government decided to confine them in whichever state they could be apprehended and state governments were requested to start a process of mapping their skill so that they may be engaged in that state.[21] It appeared to those trapped migratory workers as if they has been turned in to bonded labour. This led to almost an uprisal in different cities.

Lockdown is a measure of controlling spread of epidemic as it restricts further spread of virus by creating physical distance between persons. This social distancing could not be observed in a situation where thousands of people walk side by side with occasional jostling together for some or other reasons. Moreover, it makes quite impossible to detect source of infection as the persons are a moving flock not known to each other. As a whole the very objectives of Lockdown were defeated and the scope of spread of virus increased.

The surveillance system was almost nonstarter. Number of tests were somehow slightly increasing but that was inadequate to arrest the spread of the virus. Those issues along with several others like the shortage of testing kits which were imported at an prohibitive price in spite of availability of home-made cheaper test kits,  acute shortage of masks and personal protective equipments (PPE) etc  were aggrieving people pointing fingers toward  gross inefficiencies of the measures taken as well as against the failure of controlling the Covid. .

To tide over the situation an old arsenal was tried again, attempt was made by interested sections to let loose the virus of communalism. The media controlled by the ruling alliance started an India wide campaign to falsely implicate Muslims as the cause of spread of Covid and also a process initiated to socially ostracise Muslims. But the time tested oid tricks failed as sane voices raised against it from every corner. It caused international repercussion and even WHO issued caution note against such tendencies.

The pressures were also mounting against the way government had cordoned off inter-state roads and detained the home coming migratory workers. Rebelling against governments oppressive measures incidents of mass uprising started to surface at various places. Ultimately the government was compelled to accede to the demands of transportation of all migratory workers to their home. The victorious workers started to reunite with their family members 

There should not be any doubt over the fact that Covid posed a serious threat and a properly implemented Lockdown along with a robust surveillance system, can arrest spread of the virus. Due to various reasons, some of which are discussed above, the Lockdown failed to produce expected results. It is neither proper time to identify what mistakes have been done by whom and under what circumstances, nor so to trade charges and counter charges against each other. What cannot be denied is the fact that a wide gap emerged between the government and rich and affluent segment of population in one hand and the marginalised and poor on the other hand. The people of this country has been divided.
The country is now passing through a deep crisis, first due to the devastated economy, then for Covid epidemic, and third for the division amongst people.

WHO has stated that “Without unity we assure you, even any country that may have a better system will be in trouble and more crisis. That's our message; unity at national level, no politicising, no need to use COVID to score political points, no need.” [22]What is urgently needed at this point is unity. Fight against Covid could not be won unless efforts of people are united. Unity will not materialise until the government regains the trust of people.
To regain the trust of people the fear of poor and mrginalised to be allayed. A fear psychosis has grown within the psyche of poor and marginalised that the ruling alliance have a secret plan to devour of their of citizenship and other rights. To win their trust government must withdraw still pending notice of NPR and release all arrested persons who participated in movements against NRC. So long it will not be done the objectives of Lockdown will be portrayed to them to be something else than  Covid.

The second thing which is necessary is an immediate announcement by government about the compensation for those who lost livelihood due to the measures taken by government in view of Covid. The  Disaster Management Act was enacted with the view that the financial liabilities to mitigate a disaster may be shared by the entire nation instead of a locality/state government. In this case  the major portion(loss of earning) of the economic cost of Lockdown is unethically slapped on poor and marginalised people.. Thirdly the government should work out a comprehensive plan for rehabilitation of all those affected persons in their respective states by establishment of industrial states with Work Houses and Training cum Production centres.   

It is the time for the sane peoples of the country to come forward and initiate the process of reconciliation so that the country may be united to fight decisively against coronavirus and rebuild the devastated  economy.

1. Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India- Containment Plan, Novel Coronavirus Disease 2019-COVID-19

2. World Health Organisation --2019 Novel Corona Virus (2019-nCoV): Strategic Preparedness And Response Plan WHO 2020. (Draft as on 3rd February 2020)

3. Government of India---Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India Containment Plan, Novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID 19)

4. World Health Organisation Emergencies: Coronavirus Emergency Committee Second Meeting  Date 30.1.2020
Link:  Accessed 22.4.2020 At 8.00 pm

5. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Press Release dated 5.3.2020 Link Accessed 30.4.2020 at 3.00 am.

6. Government of India Ministry of Health & FW Consolidated Travel advisory in view of COVID-19 Dated 26.2.2020
Accessed 30.4.2020 at 1.00 am.

7. World health organisation:  Virtual press conference on COVID-19,  Dated  11 March 2020 . Linc Date of Access 22.4.20 10.00 pm.

8. Indian Council of Medical Research, Press Release Dated 6th March 2020, (Note on COVID-19 Laboratory Preparedness in India)  

9. Indian Council of Medical Research, Press Release (Dated 6.3.20) , (Note on COVID-19 Laboratory Preparedness in India) 

10. ICMR Press Release dt 6.3.2020, Ibid.

11. Indian Council of Medical Rsearh, Department of Health Research Strategy of COVID19 testing in India (17/03/2020):  Link
Accessed 30.4.2020  at 2.30 am.

12. Ayus D.O No S 16030/18/2019-NAM Dt 6.3.2020 of Rajesh Kotecha, Secretary, Government of India, Ministry of AYUSH and also Jacob Koshy—Government Recomends Homeopathy, Ayurveda to Prevent Coronavirus infection.  The Hindu, January 29, 2020. 

13.  Gaumutra, Gobar may cure coronavirus: BJP MLA tells Assam assembly -- the Economic Times, Dated March,2, 2020 and Assam BJP MLA prescribes cow dung for COVID-19—The Hindu Dated March, 3 2020.

14. Coronvirus not health emergency, total 81 cases in India: Health Ministry,-- Business Standard , March 13, 2020. 3

15.  Prime Minister's Office, PM addresses nation on combating COVID-19, ‘Janta Curfew’ to be observed on 22 March from 7 AM to 9 PM

16.  15 Lakh air travellers entered India in 2 months: cabinet secretary-The Economic Times,27.3.2020.
Link   Accessed 16.4.2020 at 1.00 am. 

17.  ICMR Strategy

18. Press Information Bureau, Prime Ministers Office, “PM calls for complete lockdown of entire nation for 21 days” PM addresses the nation on COVID-19.

19.  Anil Thakur—Covid-19: Why India Will Have To Work Extra To Soften Lockdown Blow, TOI  Mrch 27, 2020 Link   Accessed on 28..3.2020 at 43 m.

20. Dietry Guideines for Indians—A Manual, National nstitute of Nutrition, Hyderabad.

21. Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs,No. 40-3/2020-DM-1(A) dt 19.4.2020.

22.WHO COVID-19 virtual press conference -8April, 2020. Link:    Accessed 7.5.20 at 9.00 pm

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May 13, 2020

Kazi Mohammed Sherif

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