Covid-19: What you need to know today
The lockdown lasted 68 days, till May 31; a few establishments and activities were allowed to restart even in this period. Since June 1, there have been four sets of guidelines issued by the home ministry, Unlock 1.0 through Unlock 4.0, each detailing a new dimension of opening up.Updated: Sep 24, 2020, 02:48 IST
There’s a week to go before Unlock 5.0, which some believe will be the last phase of the restart of activities halted when the country went into a lockdown on March 25 to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The lockdown lasted 68 days, till May 31; a few establishments and activities were allowed to restart even in this period. Since June 1, there have been four sets of guidelines issued by the home ministry, Unlock 1.0 through Unlock 4.0, each detailing a new dimension of opening up. Restaurants have opened up, Metro services have resumed in all but two of the Indian cities that have Metro services, the number of scheduled flights has increased, as has the number of people attending offices (although many still continue to work from home). The latest iteration of the Nomura India Business Resumption Index was at 82.3 for the week ended September 20 (where 100 reflects pre-pandemic level business activity). This is higher than 81.3 the previous week, so the index is clearly on an upswing. This is the highest the index (which was stuck in the 70s for months in between, after falling to the 40s during the hard lockdown) has ever been since the lockdown. Google’s Mobility Trends for workplaces, according to the latest iteration, are 26% below baseline, again, an improvement (they were 30.4% below baseline in June).
Guidelines for Unlock 5.0 could come as early as the end of this week. They come against the backdrop of a high number of daily new cases (India continues to lead the world in the number of new cases, although Europe is in the midst of a very strong second wave of infections), but also at a time when most states have moved out of lockdown mode, at least for most establishments and activities. The big announcement everyone is either looking forward to, or not looking forward to, is about the reopening of schools. Lockdown 4.0 allowed high-schoolers to attend school for up to a few hours a day, on rotation (with the teachers too being rotated), with the permission of the parents – and only for “guidance” or “counselling”. The rationale was that these were important school-years and students needed some interaction with their teachers. This wasn’t exactly a “school reopening” as some insisted on calling it. It is likely that Unlock 5.0 guidelines will allow more of this (perhaps for more classes, or for longer durations). With almost half the academic year over, it is also likely that the guidelines allow a more formal reopening of schools. After all, online classes put underprivileged students at a disadvantage although a recent Delhi high court ruling on schools in the Capital having to provide devices and connectivity, and be reimbursed by the state and central governments, could serve as a precedent in other parts of the country as well.
I’d rather that governments focus on this (devices and connectivity for all students; and a proper online curriculum to boot) than rush into reopening schools. Cases are yet to peak in India, and experience from around the world suggests that school (and college) reopenings do cause flare-ups in infections.
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal, citing a study by researchers from the University of North Carolina, Indiana University, the University of Washington, and Davidson College, that it said would soon be posted on pre-print server medRxiv (it wasn’t at the time of writing this column) reported that the US saw 3,200 more cases a day on account of college reopenings. The study covered the period between mid-July and mid-September and tracked GPS data of mobile phones to measure infection rates in and around colleges at two points in time – before students arrived, and after they did. The highest increase was in colleges with physical or in-person classes, and the lowest in those with online classes. The UK reopened schools in September but with a sharp increase in cases (a natural consequence of reopening, and not just schools); absenteeism and partial closures of schools have increased over the course of the month. The UK, like continental Europe, is in the midst of a second wave with the seven-day average of daily cases only a thousand below peak-levels last seen in May.
Policymakers in India have the case-study of how Covid-19 roiled (and eventually cut short) the monsoon session of Parliament before them – it would be unfortunate if they make students face the risks that lawmakers themselves want to avoid.