As India edges into the middle phase of its second lockdown, indications are emerging that efforts to contain the Wuhan virus epidemic are working.
At the national level, the case numbers are beginning to plateau, recoveries are rising, and the dreaded mortality figures continue to stay, thankfully, low.
This is due to rigorous containment measures undertaken by state and central governments, the commendable diligence of local administrators, and, crucially, a vigilant adherence to lockdown rules by most of our citizenry.
In the midst of this comes news that Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan intends to relax lockdown measures shortly.
The full details are only just emerging, but it appears that a number of establishments will be allowed to reopen in seven districts. These include restaurants, hotels and offices.
In addition, private vehicles would apparently be allowed to ply on an odd-even scheme. In effect, commerce would recommence, and a semblance of normal life would resume.
Going by numbers alone, Kerala looks to be in a good place. Daily reports of fresh positive cases are down to the single digits, with most of those restricted to the two northern Kerala hotspot districts of Kasaragod and Kannur.
Recoveries are more than active cases; and only two deaths have been reported thus far (three, if you count the unfortunate passing away of a man from Mahe – a tiny union territory enclave in north Kerala).
Unfortunately, Vijayan’s move raises multiple questions.
First, does the communist government led by Vijayan believe that daily cases are down because a nationwide lockdown is in effect, or because the epidemic has abated (at least in those seven districts)?
This is an important question, but one which Vijayan would be hard pressed to answer. Reason being that, in spite of ‘testing, testing, testing’, which is supposed to be the panacea to the whole epidemic issue as per some quarters, the so-called ‘Kerala model’ has conducted only 19,351 tests in a population of over 33 million thus far (data as on evening of 19 April).
Vijayan has to answer this question, convincingly, before he pushes even one district into a partial reopening. This is since the bald truth is that, there is no actual procedural manner by which he can guarantee that the epidemic has cleared from the districts he intends to reopen.
Equally, he cannot offer a guarantee that there won’t be a resurgence in those districts, for the simple reason that he won’t be testing enough.
If he doesn’t test, how will he know? Which raises in turn a broader question: what is the basis of his decision then? A hunch? A guess? A risk?
In an ageing state like Kerala, with a significant percentage of senior citizens – the very demographic quotient most susceptible to the Wuhan virus – Vijayan’s unilateral move must not become a matter of life and death – not even by a miniscule probability.
The point here is that a decision has been communicated by his government, but not its clear rationale.
Second, two cases were reported from north Kerala hotspots late on 19 April; one from Kasaragod district and one from Kannur.
As per information provided by Vijayan in a Facebook post on 19 April, both individuals have a history of foreign travel. That statement doesn’t make any sense, because international flights were suspended on 29 March – over 20 days ago. How then are these two individuals manifesting symptoms now?
According to health authorities, the average time between exposure to virus and the manifestation of symptoms is five days – with a range of two to 14 days. What is the truth here, then?
Did these two people suppress information? Were both cases rare medical outliers?
Simple answer: we don’t know, because no adequate information has been provided by the Kerala government.
This is a serious point, because if these two people are indeed manifesting symptoms after three weeks, instead of the global maximum range of a fortnight, this has grave, manifold implications globally, for the fight against the Wuhan virus epidemic.
At the very least, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) would have to urgently dispatch a top level team to investigate the matter – if true.
So, either way, once again, Vijayan has to come clean on full patient and medical details, and satisfy doubts fully, if his decision to relax the lockdown in seven districts is to be viewed as a judicious move.
If not, then there is a serious issue, and a relaxation is the last thing Vijayan should be contemplating presently.
Third, while the final objective everywhere is indeed the lifting of the lockdown, and a welcome return to normalcy, Vijayan needs to first come clean on details of Tablighi Jamaat attendees in Kerala before he rushes into lifting the lockdown.
Can he confirm that there are no Nizamuddin Markaz attendees still harbouring the virus in those seven districts he proposes to open up shortly?
Can he confirm that none of them will manifest symptoms after the global average of a fortnight?
He cannot do so, because if he does, such a statement would directly contradict his own Facebook post, about the two latest cases being attributed to foreign travel made over 20 days ago.
The logic has to hold. One can’t have contradictions coexisting simultaneously.
Again, this is a curious discrepancy, which Vijayan is duty bound to resolve through the simple expedient of full disclosure, failing which, the possibility that he might be putting innocent lives at risk could heighten.
Fourth, the last cluster detail available in the public domain for Kerala is patient number P4933 (the elderly native of Mahe who passed away). The corresponding case date is 7 April.
What this means is that critically, for a full two weeks, no cluster mapping has been available in the public domain.
What are the people of Kerala to make of this?
Either, that the requisite mapping has indeed been done diligently by Vijayan and his government, or not.
In which case, if the answer is yes, then this mapping has to be presented as a support to the justification for relaxing lockdown restrictions.
On the other hand, if this vital exercise has not been done, then Vijayan is making a fatal mistake.
Problem is, we don’t know.
For the fourth time then, once again, only Vijayan can answer these questions. And the only way he may do so, is by being as forthcoming as he has been during his daily evening public press briefings.
While it is not the intention here to cast aspersions on Vijayan’s intentions, or to sound alarmist even by mistake, these questions have to be asked, and answered fully and satisfactorily by him, if people are to have even some confidence in Vijayan’s decision-making abilities.
Anything less would be an act of gross irresponsibility with momentous, portentous ramifications not just for Kerala, but the rest of the country as well.
Consequently, all of India awaits detailed answers from Vijayan, because his decision to lift lockdown curbs in seven districts, without the submission of any clear explanations, justifications, or necessary details, could otherwise appear injudicious.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.