The nationwide lockdown in India is scheduled to come to an end on May 3. According to what is known right now, districts and states not classified as ‘corona hotspots’ could potentially undergo lockdown relaxations, with various restrictions being lifted. But is this a wise move?
Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido was globally lauded for its efforts to contain the virus. On January 31st, its capital city, Sapporo, hosted over 2 million attendees for its annual snow festival. A lot of the visitors were from China, who was on vacation for the Lunar New Year. These tourists slowly started falling ill and cases began to be detected in the general population as well. On February 28th, the Governor of the island imposed a state of emergency when the infected count stood at only 66 (compared to India’s 500+ when its lockdown started).
An interesting point to note here is that in Japan, the government cannot use the police to enforce a lockdown, and cannot legally force businesses to shut. After its participation in World War II allied with the fascist Italy and Germany, a new constitution was written which strictly protects citizens’ rights and contains various safeguards that prevent the government from gaining fascist powers. Fortunately, the Hokkaido residents obeyed the guidelines and stayed at home, partly due to their cultural disposition against needless disobedience, partly due to their faith and trust in the government, and partly because of the freezing cold temperatures outside.
By March, growth in the cases was down to single digits, and even zero on some days (in stark contrast to India on 26th April, where 1975 new cases were discovered). However, Hokkaido’s two main industries, agriculture and tourism, were languishing, and business owners cried out for health. No new tourists were coming in, and people stopped buying perishable products like milk. Hokkaido’s dairy industry took such a big hit that the Ministry of Agriculture released an advertisement featuring a government employee in a cow costume, urging people to drink milk. All of this prompted Governor Naomichi Suzuki to announce an end to the state of emergency, while encouraging citizens to follow social distancing guidelines.
This has proven to be a massive blunder. The announcement happened to arrive just before a 3-day long weekend, and people crowded in the streets, cafes, restaurants, and shopping centers, jubilantly celebrating an end to the ‘house-arrest’. Students and workers from various provinces in Japan returned home to Hokkaido, as well as employees of large corporations who had to fulfill work commitments. Even without international migration, within three weeks regional and domestic movement and migration led to a resurgence of the pandemic, with new records being set every day for the number of new cases. The governor was forced to re-impose the emergency.
In Hokkaido, the same people who had been begging the government to ease restrictions are now urging the government to make the lockdown stricter, and penalize those violating the lockdown. India has the potential to meet the same fate, but on a much larger scale. Students from around the country, especially in diverse education hotspots like Delhi and Kota, could look to return to their homes, and take the epidemic with them to the far reaches of the country. Workers could do the same thing. India does not need an end to the lockdown. Those in power must use this time to figure out ingenious ways to help out businesses and ease the economic effects on all strata of society, such as stimulus packages, food, and aid distribution, helping businesses to operate remotely, staggered shifts and breaks in construction etc. As in Hokkaido, even the minuscule amount of social interaction involved in visiting restaurants and crowding in shops could prove to be devastating in the long run.