Zero deaths, 126 active infections, a lone case without travel history. Mizoram’s Covid-19 numbers are among the least ominous in the country. Yet, on June 22, it announced what it calls “Lockdown 7.0”: a state-wide shutdown with few exemptions till the end of the month.

In fact, even as India gradually started opening up in May, after five weeks of lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Mizoram never quite left shutdown mode. Restrictions in the state continued to be significantly higher than in most other parts of the country. There were strict controls on the numbers of vehicles that could be out on the street and shops that could open.

These controls have only grown more stringent. The latest edition of the lockdown, which began on June 23, is almost as severe as the first phase of the nationwide lockdown. While government offices are functioning at half capacity, non-essential travel is prohibited. There is a near-blanket ban on public transport; private vehicles, including two-wheelers, require a permit to be on the road; some shops can open but which ones and when is dictated by the “local task force” – ground-level enforcers of the lockdown comprising civil society and church leaders.

Many to test, few labs

The state government insists these drastic measures are necessary. “Mizos residing outside the state have been coming back in batches in big numbers,” said Eric Zomaiwa who heads the state’s national health mission.

So far, around 12,000 people have come to the state since the lockdown was relaxed in May, said Zomaiwa. Each of them has been made to undergo a molecular swab test and mandatory 14-day institutional quarantine. In some cases, the isolation period could be even longer. “We wait for at least one test result before letting [the traveller] go home,” said Zomaiwa.

With only two testing facilities in the state – and only one of them with the capability to do reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction tests, considered the gold standard for Covid-19 diagnostics in India – tests results have been slow to emerge.

“Around 3,000 samples are still pending,” said Pachuau Lalmalsawma, the state’s integrated disease surveillance program officer. When the pending results were out, Lalmalsawma said the lockdown was likely to be finally relaxed.

Of the 145 cases Mizoram had reported till June 24, all save one had come to the state from outside. The individual without travel history was a frontline worker: a conductor in one of the buses ferrying returnees from the railhead to their home districts. Lalmalsawma said the state health department had done an elaborate exercise of contact tracing for the case. Over 100 people were tracked down and tested. No one tested positive.

Yet, the state authorities are reluctant to let its guard down, largely because Mizoram doesn’t have the medical infrastructure to deal with a widespread outbreak. The state currently has 37 critical care beds and only 27 ventilators.

Lalmalsawma said there was another reason too. “We thought we needed some more time to bring public awareness about social distancing,” he said. “We want to make it a habit and part of life before relaxing the lockdown.”

Mizoram legislator ZR Thiamsanga, a doctor by profession, talks to a family near the Indo-Myanmar border. Credit; PTi

‘Community before self’

How can Mizoram afford such a prolonged lockdown? Lalmalsawma suggests it might Mizoram’s close-knit society and traditions of community service – “Tlawmngainha”. “Everyone knows everyone here, so no one goes hungry,” he said.

Embodying and enforcing this ethic is the Young Mizo Association – a voluntary organisation in which membership is a rite of passage for the large majority of young Mizos.

The Young Mizo Association has activated its well-oiled and meticulously hierarchical structure to administer the lockdown too. Along with the church, the organisation’s units – there’s one in each Mizo neighbourhood in the state – form the core of the local-level task force that is responsible for “maintaining the government protocol of the lockdown”.

The Young Mizo Association’s volunteers have stood vigilant at the state’s international borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh for three months now. “There are areas there where even the Army cannot go,” said Lalhmachhuana, vice-president of the Young Mizo Association. “The YMA is there – guarding our borders.”

They do more than just policing, though. “Because of the lockdown, there is an economic breakdown,” said Lalhmachhuana. “We are reaching out to families in which people have been affected because they cannot open their shops or go out to work.”

This, officials said, ensured that no one was going hungry because of the lockdown in Mizoram unlike other parts of the country. “The local task force is doing a lot of relief work, reaching out to people in need,” concurred Zomaiwa.

A ‘carefully calibrated lockdown’

But surely a lockdown that has stretched for over three months now would have taken its toll on the state’s economy, regardless? C Vanlalramsanga, the state’s planning secretary, has been keeping a close tab on the economic side of things. “During the first phase of the nation-wide lockdown, the losses were severe,” he said. “During that time, our gross value added loss was Rs 9 crore every day.”

In other words, the total value of goods and services produced in the state each day had reduced by Rs 9 crore during that period.

But Vanlalramsanga said the state had been able to minimise its losses subsequently. “We have a very carefully calibrated lockdown now so that it does not hamper either health or economy,” said the official. In the current lockdown, the gross value added loss per day was less than Rs 5 crore, said Vanlalramsanga.

Adding up, that amounts to more than Rs 500 crore or slightly over 2 % of the state’s annual gross value added amount.

“Almost all economic activity including farming and construction is going on in a careful manner following all necessary measures like social distancing,” said Vanlalramsanga.

A migrant worker in Chennai waits for a train to Mizoram. Credit: Arun Sankar/ AFP

The economic toll

Yet, officials said the final call on what activities to allow in a particular neighbourhood lay with the local task force.

This hyper-local customisation of the lockdown, however, has sceptics, particularly among the state’s business community. The arrangement, they say, has led to ad hocism. “Every locality seems to have their own set of rules – in the same area one neighbourhood shops are open and in another closed,” said Dina Chhangte who heads the state’s fast moving consumer goods distributors’ association. “As a distributor, this makes it very difficult for us logistically.”

Chhangte said representations to the government had fallen on deaf ears. He said, “The government listens but is not taking the full responsibility. They are washing their hands of and outsourcing decisions to the local task force.”

There also seemed to be few takers for the government’s claims that a “calibrated” lockdown had ensured minimal economic loss. “Business has come down drastically; the economic impact is huge now,” said Zodin Sanga, an Aizawl-based entrepreneur of medical equipment. “In my opinion we should take a practical approach now since there is no community transmission in Mizoram.”

The state’s merchants’ association said it was running out of patience. “We can’t keep our businesses closed any longer,” said PC Laldinthara, the association’s president. “How are we to pay our workers, electricity bills and rent otherwise?”

Even Mizoram’s famed community-driven charity culture does not seems to be filling the gap anymore. “I am absolutely broke,” said Lalzawmliana who used to drive a taxi in Aizawl. “Yes, people are helping, but how long can I keep relying on that?”