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PM’s Address: Need Sober Assessment, Coherent Lockdown Exit Strategy

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While extending the lockdown till May 3, Prime Minister Modi claimed that India has done relatively better than the advanced countries in containing the Covid 19 pandemic, which he attributed to the timely lockdown. This is certainly true with regard to the US and West European countries, but not with regard to many others, which are comparable. With over 10K total Covid 19 cases, India already ranks 22nd among 210 affected countries; 20th in terms of total deaths. Given the sharply rising trend of new cases and deaths in India over the past week, the situation is likely to worsen further, before it gets better. 
With slightly over 2 lakh Covid 19 tests done till date, India has lagged behind countries like Russia, UAE, South Korea and Australia which have tested much more and managed to ensure a much lower death rate than India’s.
Therefore, there is absolutely no scope either for elation or complacency, with regard to India’s collective efforts against the pandemic. Moreover, lockdown and physical distancing are not cures; they need to be complemented by proactive testing, identification, isolation of the affected persons, and ensuring proper medicare without stigmatising them in any manner. 
No state should be afraid of a bell-shaped curve of daily confirmed cases; first rising for a couple of weeks only to flatten and decline subsequently; the bottomline is to ensure a low death rate. This is what Kerala has commendably achieved so far and needs to be emulated by all the other states. More widespread and effective testing is the only way ahead. Governments and opinion-makers should strive to develop an enabling scientific temperament and evolving compassionate social attitudes; abstain from spreading panic and intolerance. 
It remains to be seen whether the guidelines promised to be released by the PM tomorrow, address these concerns. Else, the government and the people will remain trapped in the lockdown with no exit in sight.  
Thankfully, PM Modi did not repeat any action call for mass stupidity today, like banging utensils or lighting candles. Some of his appeals, like the one to the Indian scientists to take up the challenge of developing Covid 19 vaccine or for the young to stand by the elderly and the poor, during this crisis hour, are indeed helpful. But the Aarogya Setu app initiative need not be oversold; there are serious concerns regarding the invasion of privacy, data security and accountability regarding such contact-tracing mobile apps which the government should address before promoting it.  
The stringent lockdown in India is helping in containing the virus, but it is coming at an enormous socio-economic cost, especially for the poor daily-wage and informal sector workers, living in the urban slums and villages. This is where the government seems to be failing abjectly, relying more on lip service rather than substantive policies. 
If the Modi government does not go for a substantive fiscal relief-cum-stimulus package amounting to not less than 10% of India’s GDP, it will face the wrath of the suffering poor as and when the lockdown ends. Austerity and fiscal fundamentalism will be met with outright resistance. 
( Prasenjit Bose is top economist , a former CPI(M) leader and leads the anti-NRC Forum)

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