THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Describing the COVID-19 pandemic as an "unprecedented" public health crisis in recent history, a Kerala government-appointed task force has pitched for a "phased" and "calibrated" lifting of the national lockdown, saying "time is not yet ripe" for its full withdrawal from April 14.
Continuing restriction of large scale movement of people across international and state boundaries was critical and easing it should not be considered unless and until the situation was under control in every state, it suggested.
"The Expert Committee assessed that the time is not yet ripe for full withdrawal of the lockdown on April 14th, 2020. The committee recommends a withdrawal strategy that should be gradual, phased and calibrated to ensure that the caseload is always kept below the (surge) capacity of the healthcare system to deal with it," the panel said in its report.
However, the panel said it also felt that prolonged and stringent lockdown would lead to economic hardship, famine and law and order problems, which could undermine both the lockdown and the health management objectives.
The 17-member taskforce, headed by former chief secretary K M Abraham and comprising eminent personalities, including renowned film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, submitted its report to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Monday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced the 21-day lockdown to check the spread of the coronavirus.
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When asked about the strategy the government was likely to adopt after the lockdown period, Vijayan told reporters on Tuesday the state would be able to chart its future course of action only after knowing the Centre's decision on the 21-day lockdown, imposed to check the spread of the deadly virus.
The task force report was for the Centre's perusal and not for the state government, the Chief Minister said adding it had been sent to the Prime Minister.
A total of 336 people in the state had been infected by the coronavirus, of which 263 are active cases.
Over 1.40 lakh are under observation and 752 people in various hospitals.
Kerala, which reported the country's first three coronavirus cases and successfully treated them, has seven COVID-19 hotspot districts -- Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Thrissur, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod.
Replying to a question, Vijayan said it was a nationwide 21-day lockdown and the state government was following the directions of the Centre.
"The centre had declared a 21-day-long lockdown till April 14. Let the centre take a decision whether to continue or not with the lockdown...We will take a suitable decision accordingly," he added.
The phased withdrawal would be sustainable only if there was a steady recovery and decline in the number of cases leading to initial flattening of the infection curve and then gradual tapering of the curve to zero infection cases, according to the 39-page report.
The government should advise people of the state that in the event of a resurgence, they should be ready and willing to undergo the rigors of a complete lockdown once again, it said.
It suggested that the unit for operationalising a phased withdrawal approach should be a district as it had defined boundaries and an executive magistrate who had the authority to effectively enforce the measures of the phased lockdown.
While the lockdown may be relaxed, the effort to ramp up production and procurement of test kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment for healthcare personnel and masks should not be relaxed, the experts opined.
There should be a national effort for this purpose and all available capacity, including adapted capacity in other industries, should be used, it said.
"Central government should release funds for this and create a mechanism to distribute them on a need basis to avoid state governments trying to outbid one another or creating supply-side disruptions", it said.
As different states are expected to pass through the peak infection at different timings, it will be useful and important to establish a national coordination mechanism so that they could support one another with experience, expertise, equipment and finances, the report suggested.
It mooted three-phased criterias for the relaxation of lockdown in affected districts.
In Phase 1, no person shall travel outside the house without wearing face masks and no gathering of more than five persons for any purpose should be permitted.
No religious congregations to be permitted and all places of worship shall remain closed and attendance at marriages and funerals should be restricted to 10 persons.
Cordoning off the entire panchayat or wards and enforcing complete restriction of travel outside were recommended in infection hotspot areas.
Deploying of the additional police force in the hotspot boundary is necessary to ensure the strict enforcement of the lockdown and essential commodities and food from community kitchen are delivered through the Voluntary Task Force, the report said.