NEW DELHI: The three-week nationwide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be a way to contain the exponential growth of patients infected by the novel coronavirus and leave the country better prepared to tackle the pathogen, say officials and experts.
Government officials said that the lockdown was recommended by a 21-member task force under Dr V K Paul, member (health) Niti Aayog, which has been formed to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and an international health group under the World Health Organisation.
“The lockdown was the only way to prevent an exponential surge in the number of patients who will end up in hospitals seeking urgent medical care,” said a government official in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Epidemiologists, public health specialists and virologists The New Indian Express spoke with pointed out that the duration of 21 days looked “reasonable” but added that the government now needs to quickly identify infected people—symptomatic or asymptomatic—isolate them and prepare the emergency care services for future clusters.
Given that the incubation period for the infection is 5-14 days, said Oommen John, senior researcher with the George Institute of Global Health, the lockdown will significantly reduce the rate of disease progression in the community.
“It is buying time to prepare our hospitals and also let infected people get identified,” he said.
“This measure (21-day lockdown) is very significant to reduce the rapid chain of transmission and we can now expect some measures to aggressively test those infected,” said Dr Tarun Bhatnagar, a senior scientist with the National Institute of Epidemiology under the Indian Council of Medical Research.
He added that the efficacy of the lockdown will depend on how strictly it is followed.
Dr T Jacob John, a senior virologist with the Christian Medical College in Vellore, said that while the lockdown is the only possible way to contain the contagion before it goes “out-of hand” and causes large-scale casualties, the government should also focus on “mini-outbreaks” that will now happen due to infected people being confined in homes.
“Somehow, I don’t see concerted planning that is required in such war-like situations,” he said. “For example, where are the quarantine facilities being planned? Are we ensuring every suspect to get tested at their doorstep?Are we preparing our emergency medical services? Answers to these questions are no.”
Public health specialist Leena Menghaney said that extreme social distancing is an effective way of containing an outbreak as severe as COVID 19, as has been evident from Hubei, China—the epicentre of the global disease spread—but emphasized on mitigation strategies to control its consequences.