As coronavirus cases spike, why is India easing lockdown restrictions
As the fourth phase of India's nationwide lockdown ended, the number coronavirus infections surged past 1.9 lakh. Even as India starts to emerge out of its two-month lockdown, the tally ranks the country as the seventh worst-hit in the world. Hence, the government has been facing criticism for relaxing the lockdown, when it perhaps needs one now more than ever.
According to India's Health Ministry, India has reported 1,90,535 COVID-19 cases with 5,394 deaths. In comparison, when the lockdown was announced on March 24, India had reported 519 cases and nine deaths. During May, when the lockdown restrictions were eased to allow the interstate movement of migrants, the operation of passenger trains, and air travel, the cases increased fivefold—up from 35,365 on May 1.
The government has repeatedly said that the aim of the lockdown was to better prepare India for the outbreak. The Health Ministry said that the lockdown period had been utilized to establish 930 dedicated COVID hospitals with 1,58,747 isolation beds, 20,355 ICU beds, and 69,076 oxygen-supported beds. The Ministry also said India's testing capacity and production of protective gear has been ramped up.
Meanwhile, public health expert Dr. N Devadasan told BBC that the objective to put health systems in place to deal with an imminent COVID-19 peak has largely been met. Gautam Menon, a professor and researcher on models of infectious diseases, said, "It's certainly time to lift the lockdown," adding that it's hard to sustain a lockdown beyond a point—economically, socially, and psychologically.
Lakhs of migrant workers, daily wage laborers, small businesses, farmers, etc., have suffered since the lockdown was imposed. As the already ailing economy further struggled amid the pandemic, Fitch Ratings slashed India's growth forecast for FY21 to a 30-year low of 2%, from 5.1% projected earlier. Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan had said in April that the lockdown must end quickly.
Dr. Devadasan told BBC, "I suspect we will keep finding more and more cases, but they will mostly be asymptomatic or will have mild symptoms." He added, "But we kept the migrant workers in cities and didn't allow them to go home. Now, we are sending them back. We have facilitated transporting the virus from urban areas to rural areas."
Dr. Menon said that India's lockdown was well-timed but it was too focused on imported cases from abroad. He argued that now is the time for "localized lockdowns." India's coronavirus infections are expected to peak in July.