A day after a senior official asked media not to use the word lockdown since there was no plan for one, India announced that 75 districts would be going into lockdown to combat the coronavirus. A day later, 75 districts became nearly every state and union territory in the country. And on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown beginning March 25.

The dramatic change in policy has raised some eyebrows, not least because little thought seems to have gone into alleviating the economic distress that comes with a near nationwide shutdown, even though the likelihood of getting to one should have been evident from early March. An Economic Task Force announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi a week ago has, reportedly, not even been constituted.

India is taking a different path compared to most other countries.

For most of last week, health officials announced that there was no community transmission in the country, meaning there had not yet been confirmed Covid-19 cases that could not be traced to someone traveling abroad or those who had come in contact with them. Officials, in fact, were adamant about this fact, though the authorities only expanded testing criteria to better examine if there had been community transmission on Friday, March 20.

Most western countries waited until community transmission was firmly established before moving towards shutdowns.

In the United Kingdom, there was a complex debate about letting the disease spread further, based on an approach that presumes that more than half of the population will eventually contract Covid-19. Eventually a startling study by Imperial University about the numbers of casualties this may result in prompted a turn-around, after 355 people had already died.

This graphic from the Guardian displays the number of deaths at the time the hardest-hit European nations declared a lockdown.

Credit: Guardian

India would be an outlier here, albeit on par with China – where the virus first emerged. A near-national lockdown in India was announced while the total number of Covid-19 deaths was still in single digits, with fewer than 500 official cases, compared to thousands in the European countries.

India’s move to lock down this early into the process may be attributed to any one of these reasons, or a combination of them:

  • Learning lessons from other countries
  • A populace that will complain less (than western ones) about heavy-handed government action
  • Fear that India simply cannot allow the virus to get to stage 3 of community transmission
  • A presumption that India’s numbers were probably much higher than the official figures
  • The government belatedly acting after weeks of insisting all was under control.

It is true that India has been willing to take drastic measures on the external front – from curtailing traffic to and from China to banning all international travelers to shutting out even its own citizens by not allowing any international flights to land.

At the same time, the preparations for other scenario has been belated: Expanding testing criteria took weeks, creating the framework to include the private sector also took time and reports, including this Scroll.in investigation, make it clear that despite demands starting in February, government had not moved to procure equipment and material that are crucial for health professionals.

Is the pre-emptive lockdown an attempt to compensate for these failures and inability to shore up the healthcare system? And if so, does it take into account the hit that India’s economy and its neediest will face?

With the unorganised sector amounting to about three-fourths of India’s working population, the concerns are not just that shutdowns will hurt the economy but also that the state will have no way of effectively delivering welfare and supporting them in lock down conditions. This is, of course, aside from the regular concerns with a lockdown in which people have difficulty accessing everything from food and water to healthcare, even as businesses face the danger of falling apart.

In the United States, despite cases and deaths mounting, President Donald Trump has already the desire to end restrictions on movements, saying that the cure should not be worse than the problem.

A final concern about lockdowns is sustainability.

People might be more than willing to go with the call from the prime minister for a day or even a week, but keeping huge numbers indoors after that is difficult, as the experience of western countries has shown. In India, where people will be making difficult choices about protecting themselves or going out and earning enough money to eat, this decision becomes even harder.

This brings with it the fear that when people do emerge from their houses, there will be a fresh wave of infections, making things worse.

So will India’s pre-emptive lockdowns have the desired effect and flatten the curve before the virus has spread massively? Will it delay the inevitable? Or will it deal an unnecessary economic blow without arresting the spread of the disease?

Here is a sampling of pieces that give you a sense of the lockdown debate playing out around the world: