As country exits lockdown, Centre and states must step up public communication, convey message of caution and safety

A new phase in the country’s tryst with the novel coronavirus is beginning. On May 30, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued “Unlock 1” guidelines, allowing a phased resumption of social and economic activities across the country. Though a calibrated relaxation of restrictions had begun in early May, the new guidelines are significant in that they speak a different language from the notifications issued by the MHA since the lockdown was announced on March 24 — the thrust is on “re-opening” now. Activities can resume in malls, hotels, restaurants, and places of worship in non-containment zones and “unfettered movement” of goods and persons within and between states has been allowed. Given the toll on people’s livelihoods, and the stress on the economy in general, easing the stringent lockdown had become necessary. At the same time, the coronavirus continues to rage in large parts of the country — there have been record spikes in the national caseload in the last three days. Therefore, in the coming weeks, as commuters get back on the roads, shopping centres reopen and people give in to the temptation of eating out, the Centre and the states need to keep talking to them about the pathogen that doesn’t have an antidote yet — they should not lose sight of the importance of conveying the message of caution and safety.

The loosening of the restrictions has come amidst a few positive developments. The recovery rate in Maharashtra — the worst affected state in the country — is now at par with the national average. It’s also a matter of some assurance that the doubling rate of the infection in Gujarat — the state with the third-highest caseload — is much slower than the national rate. But there have also been several worrying developments since last week. Delhi has been adding more than 1,000 cases daily for four days, Kerala has seen a fresh spurt of infections, and returning migrants are adding to the caseload of several states — the number of COVID cases in Assam, for instance, doubled in three days last week. This surge in infections will test the already overstretched healthcare infrastructure of the states and they will have to find creative ways to deal with the burden on hospitals — framing norms for home quarantine, for example.

The new guidelines continue the trend that began two weeks ago, with Lockdown 4, of giving states the freedom to prohibit activities to contain the pandemic. But the authorities will need to do more than putting curbs in place. Post-lockdown India will require a milieu in which people visit markets, places of worship, restaurants and socialise without letting down their guard against the coronavirus. The Centre and state governments must work towards creating such an environment by constantly communicating and engaging with civil society.

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