Lockdown, A Costly Action

Masterly Inaction was a better option in response to COVID-19

Today, the twenty-fourth of March 2020, Prime Minister Modi announced a complete lockdown across the country for three weeks starting from midnight tonight to stave off the menace of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“In the view of the current situation, the nationwide complete lockdown will be in place for 21 days,” the Prime Minister declared.

I am disappointed. This is the first time I have disagreed with any major decision taken by the PM.

Let me explain why I am unhappy.

The Unknowns

We don’t know much about the COVID-19 epidemic’s characteristics and we know even less about its spread in India.

We do not even know fully the level of spread of the virus in India. We are not even certain of our level of preparedness to deal with the more severe cases. But below, I list some of the unknowns that tell me why the decision made by the PM is not the right one.

1. Does the preexisting exposure to many other infections to many Indians provide them with cross-immunity? Those who have grown up in India, in general, suffer less from many diseases because of the immunity they come to acquire in the country.

2. Does the younger demographic profile provide India with significant protection in comparison to all the other countries which are in the news, all of which have a higher-aged population?

3. Will the coming hot summer months help in curbing the virus?

4. With the number of deaths due to other infectious diseases already so high in India would additional deaths due to COVID-19 amount to a much of a jump in the number of deaths?

5. When the people who are placed under lockdown reemerge out of their homes, will they be again at the risk of exposure?

6. We do not know how the virus will mutate. We can be certain it will mutate. There are good chances of it mutating into a less dangerous form, into a form that becomes endemic, causing general widespread infections like common cold or flu. Diseases like these do exact a toll in terms of human suffering and loss of productivity but the systems have evolved to deal with them and to ameliorate their impact. If it evolves into a more dangerous, more transmissible form, it will spread rapidly, maybe after a break. But spread it will.

The developed countries are practicing social-distancing not to defeat the virus, they are doing it to spread out the number of infections over time so that their systems, particularly the hospitals and the economy don’t get overwhelmed by too much of the burden within a short time.

Bottom line

By imposing a 21-day lockdown, we will not reduce the number of infected people when seen even over 2 months’ duration. That is, the number of people infected will remain the same for the period between March 25th and May 25th, whether we have a lockdown or not. The virus will eventually spread to cover a large proportion (60–70%) of the population, with or without lockdowns or social-distancing efforts. This will happen even in developed countries that have seemingly controlled the problem for now. The widespread infection would likely give rise to herd-immunity which can keep the virus under check, reducing it to at the most an endemic menace with periodic spurts.

The lockdown would have its effect only on the regulated part of the economy, its effect on the unregulated part and the people involved in it will only be partial. The unregulated sector will try to continue its business, defeating the lockdown injunction. So, the most productive part of the economy would be hobbled but the sector with a higher population, little discipline, and even lesser regulatory control would continue to disseminate the virus while yielding low returns in terms of productivity.

If the virus were allowed its natural course in India, the balance between the virus and the human population would have reached earlier, meanwhile, India would not have inflicted a punishing blow to its already weak economy. There is a strong possibility because of the natural immunity of the Indians, younger demographic and the oncoming hot months of the Indian summer, the impact, in any case, would not be too severe. Further, allowing all Indians to be exposed to the infection would probably build up herd-immunity quickly. This is like mass immunization in one go. Since we would not have hobbled our economy to the extent that the other countries have, we would be in a better position to make the most of the rebound in sentiments once the world got over its fear of the pandemic. Now we have inflicted on ourselves a blow bigger than demonetization the value of which is even less.

I believe the decision was more a political one, or a one that he took under the pressures of the myriad voices out there, news of country after country announcing its own strict measures, and not wanting to be blamed for inaction or weak action. He is a person known for not shying away from bold actions. Inaction would have come across as chickening out.

Or probably, it was an act of conscience — his not wanting to be burdened with the guilt of many deaths that would result from his not taking any action. The deaths that would occur due to the economic loss would not weigh so heavily on his conscience since they would be distant and distributed diffusely in the population.

Yet “No Action” was perhaps the better choice. It would also have been the bolder of all possible actions.

कर्मण्यकर्म यः पश्येदकर्मणि च कर्म यः।
स बुद्धिमान् मनुष्येषु स युक्तः कृत्स्नकर्मकृत्।।

He who finds inaction in action, and action in inaction, he is the wise one [Possessed of the knowledge of Brahman] among men; he is engaged in yoga and is a performer of all actions!

— Bhagvat Gita (4:18)

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