Over 700 scientists, academics and public health professionals on Wednesday urged the Narendra Modi government to prepare a post-lockdown plan, expand testing, and institute urgent welfare measures for those in the unorganised sector to reduce the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, the signatories pointed out that the three-week lockdown imposed to contain the coronavirus spread is by itself not a cure. They urged the government to chart out a post-lockdown plan at the earliest to minimise damage. “Epidemiological models consistently suggest that, in the absence of other factors, the epidemic could bounce back once the lockdown is lifted,” they said. “If this were to happen at the end of India’s lockdown, the epidemic would hit a society already under severe economic distress, with potentially devastating consequences.”

The 746 signatories include members of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology, along with doctors, public health experts and activists.

They added that a roadmap will ensure that the rate of new infections is kept low in a sustainable manner when the lockdown period ends. “While social distancing and better hygiene can help, these measures are insufficient by themselves,” the signatories said. “We believe that such a plan should have been put in place before the lockdown was announced, and we urge the government to do so as soon as possible. Such a move would also enhance the confidence of people in the government’s long-term strategy.”

The scientists, academics, public health professionals also expressed concern that India is not testing enough to identify people with infections. “The lockdown may succeed in temporarily suppressing the epidemic, at great social cost, but we are concerned that the government is not using this precious interval of time to actually identify as many cases of Covid-19 as possible,” they said.

They said the restrictive testing policy will leave large number of coronavirus cases undetected by the end of the 21-day lockdown. “These cases could easily serve as the nucleus for the epidemic to bounce back,” they added. The signatories urged Indian Council of Medical Research and the government to expand the testing regimen and follow the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.

They also added that the exodus of the migrant workers due to the lockdown can spread the virus to even places where healthcare facilities are the weakest. “This can precipitate both an epidemiological and a humanitarian crisis,” the statement said. “Rather than attempting to prevent the reverse migration, using the police, we urge the government to use its stocks of foodgrains and use urgent cash transfers to ensure the food-security and welfare of workers and ensure that they are not compelled to undertake long and unsafe journeys, which have already led to a number of deaths.”

The nationwide lockdown, which entered its ninth day on Wednesday, has left thousands of workers in the informal sector without jobs and any means of sustenance. Many migrant workers have been forced to undertake journeys for hundreds of kilometres on foot to their villages in the absence of public transport. Last week, thousands of them boarded buses arranged by the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to get home. There has been massive outrage over how the migrants have been treated – stopped at borders and in one instance, sprayed with disinfectant in Uttar Pradesh.

India has so far registered 38 deaths from 1,637 confirmed coronavirus infections.

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