Covid-19 Lockdown: asking some questions?(Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
01 June 2020 14:42 IST

We now know  the contours of exit plan from lockdown  which is an honorable exit in aid of ‘atmanirbhar Bharat’. When the Prime Minister announced a three weeks lockdown from the midnight of 25th March, we supported the Prime Minister as he was seen as acting under advice from medical professionals. Our Prime Minister was hailed for being decisive. The country veered around a feeling that economic costs are not to be seen when it comes to saving lives. U.K. was facing as disaster with the failure of herd immunity and Donald trump had put U.S.A in a pit due to his ‘economy first’ stand. The world did not know everything about the   virus and the biggest fear comes from ignorance. The country’s support to our PM must be seen from the perspective of fear of the unknown.

 Though planning of the lockdown and the time gap of three and half hours was questioned, the country welcomed the shutdown due to our poor health infrastructure in light of lack of global knowledge over the virus. We took into consideration grim scenario of lakhs of deaths seen through the prism of study by John Hopkins University. On 25th March, there were 600 cases and 13 deaths- a very low figures to impose a lockdown. But who knows in case there was no lockdown, we may have landed in a situation we find difficult to come out of it

 There are over 1,90,,000 Cases today and over 5000. Deaths and after series of calibrated relaxations called extensions of lockdown, there is an overwhelming opinion in favour of opening up of the country. Lockdowns can never be permanent solution to virus infection. Decision making over shutting down a country like India is always a complex matter. The pros and cons have to be weighed and a balance struck taking into consideration the good of all. The Cabinet form of governance is considered good for decision making after taking into consideration varied interests. Parliament is a great debating chamber. At a time when important decisions are taken and the country faces unprecedented crisis, the parliament and the cabinet   are nowhere in the decision making process. The consultative process with the states or with the opposition is only for the optics. The labour minister, social justice minister, food & Civil supplies and the agriculture minister not forgetting Home minister ought to have given their inputs before the decision to lockdown the country was arrived at.

It was probably Jawarharlal Nehru who found it though to arrive at certain decisions. He had intellectuals with strong and definite views in the cabinet . Many will not even know the name of our current labour minister or that of social justice minister or  even agriculture .We are not aware whether it is the cabinet that decided to impose a lockdown or it was the decision of the Prime Minister (the Home Minister was also not seen around those days) Was it the National Security council which is tasked with the responsibility of security and strategic matters. The officials of the Niti Ayogh and ICMR were around the PM at that time.

If the agriculture minister was consulted, would he not take care of rabi harvesting? Similarly  the minister for labour- would he not take into account that there is an unorganized workforce a(called migrants)of around over  400 millions living far away from their homes is sub human condition? Would the Urban development minister not  tell the Prime Minister that social distancing is not possible in slums and rented tenements where ten or more  live in one room?. What was the position taken by the minister for food and civil supplies overproviding food and rations to them? May be our ministers have no expertise over their departments. It was their responsibility to consult the experts. If the state governments were taken into the loop of decision making initially, the work force in the unorganized sector far away from the native places certainly could have been looked after. Momentous decision of shutting a country like ours required wider consultations. If we accepted the Prime minister’s command at the time of lockdown, after two months of shutting down of the country at least, these questions deserve answers.

 There is so much opacity with the decision making process that the country believes it is the Prime minister that takes all decisions. There is a belief that other than Home Minister, others hardly have a say. They must have even stopped thinking! Imagine we decided to lockdown those with no shelter over their heads when the infection rate was nearly 600 cases and we decided to arrange trains when the infected cases cross a lakh.

The virus infection is in the field of epidemiology and virology. It is not even known whether the government consulted the experts in that field. Some big names in epidemiology were  of the opinion that lockdown is less likely to succeed than we think, unless there is mass testing, contact tracing and quarantining.   That capacity we did not have. We do not have strong public health department. Our overdependence has been on ICMR and Niti Ayogh who believed the corona infection graph would hit rock bottom by mid-May!

We are now told to live with the virus. We have to defeat the virus and also become self-reliant economically.    The lock down became a disaster for not taking into account those who lived from hand to mouth. We did not ask questions in March .We have to ask the right questions so that momentous decisions are taken after consulting the stake holders and experts and the metrics used in decision making must take into account wider economic, health and social costs as against  the benefits of the decision. We are in independent country since 1947 and republic since 1950, it is inconceivable that in 2020 we do not know how decisions that affect our lives and suspend democratic principles arrived at.





Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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