“You’ve got to shut down,” Biden’s chief medical adviser tells the Indian government

Struggling with shortage.
Struggling with shortage.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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Pretty much every expert—in the country and abroad—now believes that India needs to implement a nationwide lockdown to minimise the damage of the brutal second wave of Covid-19 that’s gripped the country. But as per prime minister Narendra Modi, a lockdown should be the last resort.

On May 9, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to US president Joe Biden, told ABC News that vaccines will only help India in the long run but the country needs to shut down given the current dire situation.

“I have advised them in the past that you really need to do that. You’ve got to shut down. I believe several of the Indian states have already done that, but you need to break the chain of transmission. And one of the ways to do that is to shut down,” the 80-year-old immunologist, who serves as the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said.

“Endgame of all is to get maximum people vaccinated,” he said while looking forward at the problem of “how one could break the chain of transmission?”

Fauci is not the only medical professional to have advised Modi in favour of a lockdown.

On May 9, India’s top doctors’ association, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) also asked Modi to call for a well-planned preannounced national lockdown for at least 15 days. The IMA said this would give the overburdened medical infrastructure a much-needed breather.

“The central government had refused to implement a lockdown resulting in the mounting of new patients beyond 400,000 every day and the number of moderate to severe cases is increasing to nearly 40%,” IMA said. “Sporadic night curfews have not done any good.”

Why Modi doesn’t want a lockdown?

Modi’s decision to stay away from a lockdown is a complete U-turn from his stance last year.

In March 2020, when India had just around 500 Covid-19 cases, Modi was quick to impose a sudden and extremely stringent national lockdown that lasted over two months. However, last month he told all state ministers that lockdowns should be used as the “last resort.” This decision was despite the fact that in April, India’s total death toll due to the virus crossed the 200,000 mark.

The shift in Modi’s stance is perhaps based on the economic toll of the lockdown in 2020.

The unplanned and poorly executed lockdown had left thousands of daily wagers in India unemployed and vulnerable. At least 989 lives were lost due to the lockdown that was so last minute that nobody had the time to prepare for it. This was also the first time that the country was witnessing a curfew of this scale, which made people anxious.

Since then, things have changed.

An average Indian has a better understanding of how lockdowns work—that stores don’t run out of food and e-commerce remains operational. In addition, right now, many people are scared to step out even without a lockdown because the country’s healthcare system is on its knees with doctors and nurses fighting a relentless battle against coronavirus for over a year. Most hospitals in the country have run out of capacities and are struggling to keep their oxygen supplies running.

Fauci about India’s lockdown

This isn’t the first time when Fauci has called for a nationwide lockdown in India.

Last week in a conversation with news agency PTI, Fauci termed India’s situation as “desperate” and called for a nationwide lockdown, not necessarily for six months but “for a few weeks” to break the transmission of infection.

A few days ago, I recommended and I believe at least parts of India are doing it, that you shut down the country in lockdown.

Because other countries, including for example what China did last year, what Australia did when they had an outbreak, what New Zealand did, what other countries did is to completely lock down for a relatively limited period of time. You don’t have to lock down for six months. You can lock down for a few weeks.  Because when you lock down, it is well known, with the experience of other countries that locking down, definitely interferes with the dynamics of the viral outbreak and you could interfere with the continuity and the transmission of infection

Indian states under lockdown

Even as Modi, who has been criticised for mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic from the start, chooses to shy away from a lockdown, most state governments seem to have received the message from medical experts.

At present, a majority of Indian states are already either in full or partial lockdowns, depending on the severity of coronavirus cases. The latest in this list is Uttarakhand, which will go into a lockdown from May 11 till May 18.