Are India’s night curfews any good at curbing Covid-19 infections?

Deja you.
Deja you.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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There’s a sense of pandemic deja vu in India as states start imposing curfews to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The country is in the grip of a raging second wave of Covid-19 infections, which threatens to be worse than India’s worst infection count in September 2020. On April 4, there were over 100,000 new cases of novel coronavirus infections for the first time since the pandemic spread in March 2020, higher than India’s last peak of 98,000 in September. The past 24 hours saw the biggest jump yet with over 115,000 new cases.

Daily new Covid-19 infections in India.
Daily new Covid-19 infections in India.
Image: Our World in Data

The states and districts where the Covid-19 cases seem to be surging again have implemented lockdown measures to break the chain of infection.

The western state of Maharashtra, which is home to India’s financial capital Mumbai, is under a strict lockdown till April 30. Services, mostly only essential ones, are open only till 8pm on weekdays, and the state will be under a near-total shutdown over the weekends.

Similarly, in Delhi, the state government announced a “night curfew” yesterday (April 7), which prohibits any non-essential movement between 10pm and 5am.

The concept of a night curfew is not new to India. Especially since India’s first lockdown in March 2020,  nearly all movement was barred at night across the country, and public gatherings of more than five people were prohibited, restrictions that lasted several months up till the phased “unlock” began in June.

Now, these night curfews are back despite scientists calling into question their very purpose. “Curfews, especially night curfews, are not expected to be helpful in curbing cases. The only purpose I can think they serve is to give a break to police and those in allied jobs, who are in charge of enforcing Covid-19 appropriate behaviour in the day,” said Gautam Menon, professor at the departments of physics and biology at Ashoka University.

Others on social media have had a field day trying to make sense of a measure that has great meme potential.

A 10pm curfew in Delhi and an 8pm restriction in Maharashtra and Rajasthan also come as a blow to restaurants and small eateries who were only just getting back on their feet.

Hitting restaurant businesses

Only essential workers and delivery personnel can move about in states that have announced night curfews, and restaurant deliveries have not been included in this category. “We somehow survived so far, but with the new guidelines, it seems highly unlikely that we can sustain any longer,” said Kabir Suri, vice-president of the National Restaurant Association of India. “We were shut for the most part of last year. We have been operating at 50% and restricted hours since then. We had just about started seeing some respectable surge in consumption which prompted us to hire back our people and now we are left in a lurch,” he said.

A night curfew in Delhi further complicates things for restaurants, which are currently allowed to offer dine-in facilities. According to Suri, a 10pm curfew means winding up the dinner service by 9pm so that people can reach their destinations in time.

The threat of stringent lockdowns, which can be economically devastating for the state and the country’s businesses, still remains—one that Covid-19 experts believe can be wholly avoided.

The lockdown logic

According to Menon, “broad statewide lockdowns should be the last tool that is used because they impact the livelihoods of too many people who live on the margins.” Instead, “lockdowns targeted to localities, parts of cities or whole cities themselves for limited periods, are options that should be explored,” he said.

The biggest lesson from the past year, Menon added, is that governments now know how to fully stem the transmission of the virus. Things like masking mandates, not allowing large social and political gatherings in enclosed spaces, and improving ventilation in public spaces are all effective tools to combat the pandemic.

Also key here is to ramp up the vaccine drive. So far, India has administered 84 million Covid-19 vaccine doses, of which nearly 11 million people have received both doses. “We should do all of these together and no single measure is noticeably superior to another. If I had to choose one, it would be universal masking,” he said.