Balancing lives and livelihoods, the Centre has extended the national lockdown for COVID-19 for two weeks from May 4, with fewer restrictions on activity. But the highly contagious virus has not disappeared and the weeks ahead present a challenge to States. They must ensure that the gains from the lockdown in terms of a relatively low death toll and a cap on new cases are not reversed overnight in the red, orange and green zones, where normality of varying degrees is to be restored, barring the containment zones. Kerala, lauded for its success in containing the pandemic, has chosen to retain some curbs even in green zones. Allowing some economic activity, though not at full pace, and under safeguards, was inevitable, although the stipulations in the Home Ministry’s orders require a high degree of civic cooperation. The continued suspension of air, rail, inter-State and urban public transport, and the bar on mass gatherings and entertainment venues remove a major source of crowding, although the restrictions on the number of passengers allowed in private vehicles and taxi cabs, and the protocol for personnel in industries call for strict adherence to succeed. Allowing outpatient clinics to reopen and the permission given for plumbers, electricians and other technicians to work with safeguards are welcome. The relaxation process can be eased greatly if States adopt a ‘how to’ approach and communicate to citizens clearly.
In the absence of medical remedies, prevention remains the only option against the virus. Using face masks, now mandatory, hand washing and physical distancing at all times are universally recognised precautions. Such measures were adopted relatively late in India, with politicians initially reluctant to even adjourn legislatures, leave alone impose strict curbs on public activity. It has taken more than a month to move migrant workers back to their home States by train; in the interim, several desperate families have tried to walk home across vast distances and many have perished. Besides ensuring decent conditions for these workers and the education of their children, States must also prepare for the arrival of expatriate workers in large numbers from West Asia and elsewhere. These unprecedented pressures add to the need to maintain the highest vigil against COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the biggest cities, with a legacy of market-driven housing policies, unplanned densification, rampant pollution and poor health-care access are red zones, with large infection clusters. Their decay is marked by the absence of usable commons, including pavements in normally crowded localities, making it difficult to maintain distancing. This is an appropriate moment to start repairing that damage. What the public must be told emphatically is that the relaxation of the lockdown is not a return to life as it existed before the coronavirus. It is a new reality, one that calls for safe, measured activity.