When lockdowns become counter-productive

India’s challenge as the fourth lockdown winds down on May 31 will be to pursue a revival of economic activity without setting off infection spikes in red zones.

 |  4-minute read |   29-05-2020
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The coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on frontline healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses and other medical staff continue to struggle to save patients in under-equipped hospitals, placing their own lives at risk and yet never shirking their duty.

The same story plays out in Britain where nearly 20 per cent of 1,50,000 doctors in the National Health Service (NHS) are of Indian origin. Over 200 have died of the virus in the past three months.

The economic fallout

Fortunately, cases and deaths are falling rapidly across the United States and Western Europe where over two-thirds of all global fatalities due to Covid-19 have taken place – 2.40 lakh deaths out of 3.60 lakh deaths worldwide. The virus peaked in Europe in mid-April. It appears to have peaked in the US in early-May. While the second wave of infections can’t be ruled out, the worst might be over for the West.

In Italy and Spain, bars and cafes have opened. In Germany, the elite Bundesliga football league is up and running, though playing to empty stadiums. Spain’s La Liga restarts on June 8. In the US, the economy in several states has started humming again.

So just how lethal is the coronavirus? Is the world opening up too quickly? The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently presented an estimate of the overall death rate for Covid-19: 0.26 per cent. John P. A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine, epidemiology and biomedical data science at Stanford University, had computed the death rate at between 0.05 per cent and 1 per cent. Professor Ioannidis called the fatality rate of 3.4 per cent reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) “meaningless”.

main1_covid-19-masks_052920102425.jpgBeyond a point, the fear of Covid-19 can cause more damage than Covid-19 itself. (Photo: Reuters)

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute made a startling admission. The institute’s director Professor Adrian Hill told Britain’s The Sunday Telegraph on May 24: “It’s a race against the virus disappearing and against time. We said earlier in the year that there was an 80 per cent chance of developing an effective vaccine by September. But at the moment, there's a 50 per cent chance that we get no result at all. We’re in the bizarre position of wanting Covid to stay, at least for a little while.”

The reason? The number of UK Covid cases has dropped steeply and there may not be enough people in Britain to test it on, says Professor Hill. The economic destruction that Covid-19 has wreaked will take long to repair. In the US over 39 million people have filed unemployment claims, taking the jobless rate to 27 per cent, higher even than during the Great Depression of 1929. The British economy shrunk by 2 per cent in the January-March 2020 quarter. The Indian economy is estimated to record negative growth in 2020-21 for the first time in 40 years.

Mental health crisis

India’s challenge as the fourth lockdown winds down on May 31 will be to pursue a revival of economic activity without setting off infection spikes in red zones. The CDC study should be required reading for Indian policymakers. Beyond a point, the fear of Covid-19 can lead to more fatalities than through Covid-19 itself. Joblessness, malnutrition among over 120 million migrant workers, and untreated non-Covid-19 diseases like diabetes, kidney and liver malfunction, cancer, malaria, cholera and tuberculosis are real dangers if the battle against Covid-19 becomes all-consuming.

Lockdowns after a certain stage become counter-productive and can lead to unintended consequences. Several medical professionals in the West have noted an unusual spurt in mental illnesses and suicides since the Covid-19 pandemic struck. “We’ve never seen numbers like this in such a short period of time,” said Dr Mike de Boisblanc of John Muir Medical Center in northern California. “We’ve seen a year’s worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks.”

The consequences

According to The Washington Post, “Federal agencies and experts warn that a historic wave of mental-health problems is approaching: depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. Nearly half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered more than a 1,000 per cent increase in April compared with the same time last year. The suicides of two New York healthcare workers highlight the risks, especially to those combating the pandemic.”

The recent death of two doctors at AIIMS in New Delhi underlines the risk frontline health workers face in India. The suicide of a patient sequestered in a quarantine facility also shows how fear of the pandemic can cause collateral fatalities. From June 1 over 80 per cent of India will be free of the lockdown. Mumbai, India’s financial capital, may not be.

The appalling neglect of the city’s health and public transport infrastructure under successive Congress, BJP and Shiv Sena governments is an indictment of Maharashtra’s politics. It is no surprise that a state with nine per cent of India’s population accounts for 37 per cent of India’s coronavirus cases. It is a statistic for which the Uddhav Thackeray-led government will be held to account.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Covid-19: How the 21-day lockdown can be a turning point for India

Writer

Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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