To make matters worse, nearly 100 districts that have such hotspots are also major manufacturing hubs of the country—posing difficulties in reopening factories quickly.
The surge in infection clusters comes amid India exploring a decentralized strategy to exit the lockdown that may involve dividing the nation into green, orange and red zones. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier made it clear that the lockdown cannot be lifted across the country in one go.
Out of the 354 districts that have reported one or more cases, nearly 150 have more than six cases, earning them the hotspot moniker. A majority of these hotspots are concentrated in western and southern India. The rest of the 204 districts are called emerging hotspots, according to the health ministry.
The spread of the virus is unlikely to be uniform across the country, said Lav Agarwal, a joint secretary at the Union health ministry.
The addition of new districts with confirmed coronavirus cases has strained the government’s ‘cluster containment strategy’ that seeks to limit the disease within a defined area through early detection.
Government officials said that the risk of further spread of the disease remains very high.
“We are looking at strong containment efforts in hotspots. Each and every case for us is a new hotspot. We are also starting double testing and stringent monitoring in these areas,” he said.
Mint reported on 6 April that India is drawing up a plan that involves focusing sharply on states, cities and districts that need immediate attention, heeding lessons from global hotspots such as Italy and Iran that allowed the outbreak to spin out of control because of their inconsistent response.
As India approaches the end of the lockdown period, both the Centre and states have signalled a shift in strategy for dealing with covid-19 outbreak, with the focus now on both lives and livelihood.
In a statement to chief ministers on Saturday, Modi said a shift has to be made to ensure that lives are saved along with livelihoods.
“Chief ministers suggested that the lockdown should be extended by two weeks,” the union government said in a statement on Saturday.
The Centre will shortly come up with new guidelines for the lockdown. According to reports, the lockdown, which was to end on 14 April, has been extended by two weeks. There has been no official communication on it so far.
With chief ministers making a case for the extension of lockdown, there is need for a decentralized response, given that the spread of the disease has been varied across the country.
“Different states have different needs and there is no doubt that one size does not fit all. Whenever the Union government decides to announce a package or assistance plan, it should ideally be state-specific because each state has different socio-economic indicators and requirements,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
The timing for a possible extension of lockdown is a cause of worry for several state governments as this is a harvesting season for crops and mandis need to be open for the sale of crops.
Over the last week, chief ministers have pitched for specific demands from the Union government. For instance, in Saturday’s meeting, Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh sought greater relaxations for farm-related activities in his state, while his Chhattisgarh counterpart Bhupesh Baghel demanded an economic package for medium small and micro industries. Rajasthan chief minster Ashok Gehlot sought a ‘Food for Work’ scheme as a social safety net for the poor.
Saturday was the third meeting that the prime minister held with chief ministers over the past one month, pointing to a greater coordination between the Centre and states, at least in combating the coronavirus crisis. The Union government is also using the crisis to initiate reforms, a case in point being the reforming of Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs).
“PM suggests specific measures for agriculture and allied sector, including modification of APMC laws, to facilitate sale of farm produce,” the government statement said and added, “He also suggested that direct marketing for farm produce can be incentivized to prevent crowding in mandis, for which model APMC laws should be reformed swiftly. Such steps will help farmers sell products at their doorstep.”
Modi also suggested the idea of a lock-in wherein industrial, agricultural and construction workers may be housed within their work zones itself and continue with their work. Modi also urged states to encourage people to download the Aarogya Setu app and said it will be helpful in future to issue e-passes. The app helps track coronavirus infections by using the smartphone’s GPS system in determining if one has been near a covid-19 infected person or not.
The states have sought more resources to deal with the health and the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and pitched for leveraging Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to counter the same. They have called for increasing the pay and number of work days under the rural job guarantee programme.
States have also called for quantitative easing or new money supply by the Reserve Bank of India, increasing the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management limit to 6% and deferring the states’ debt service obligations by three to six months.
Not all chief ministers who attended the video conference with the prime minister spoke on Saturday.
“Given the time constraints, these meetings try to fit in as many as possible. The CMs who are requested to share their detailed inputs are also decided upon. That’s the reason why some CMs didn’t offer their inputs in detail on Saturday,” said one of the government officials cited above