Curbs must be driven by data
The administration of Delhi imposed a ban on dining-in at restaurants and ordered private offices, except those in a handful of essential or exempt services, to work from home. Citing the rise in cases, an order from the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (which is chaired by the Lieutenant-Governor) shut down the last of leisure-related activities after having already closed gyms, cinema halls and multiplexes. On Monday, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal sought to reassure the Capital’s citizens that Delhi would not be locked down. But a cursory look at the restrictions shows that a lockdown is in place for all practical purposes.
The problem with the decision is not merely semantics; some aspects of the order defy science and economic realities. Science has shown that mitigating the Omicron variant outbreak is a wiser choice than containment. The virus is far less virulent and far more transmissible, which means the moderately higher risk in allowing it to spread by not locking down is negated by the substantially lower chances of people now needing to be hospita-lised. The economic reality is that at the current level of restrictions, there will be towering losses for businesses, with tens of thousands of workers — including contractual staff at private workplaces — facing pay cuts and unemployment.
The experience of many countries has shown these steps may be unnecessary. Dining-in at restaurants can go on by allowing them to expand outdoors, and with limits on capacity; the city of New York at one point even closed off roads in popular leisure districts to allow eateries to set up tables outside. Similarly, England resisted calls to close pubs and nightclubs, redoubling focus on mitigation instead. In many countries, offices are encouraged to open with improved ventilation. The biggest missed opportunity is perhaps the continuing delay in allowing all adults to take booster doses. Take the example of France, where schools have remained open and most leisure activities allowed for the fully vaccinated, who also have the option to take boosters as early as three months after their full doses. Boosters further lower risks, although this is a decision that is in the hands of the Centre.
That the virus poses a threat is undeniable and the desire to err on the side of caution is understandable. But in the third year of the pandemic, to do so without first trying proven, low-cost steps to reduce the spread of Covid-19 is unscientific, detrimental to livelihoods, and against the larger public interest.