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Guwahati Locked down again!

The latest lockdown of two weeks declared by Assam health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for Assam’s capital Guwahati seems like a desperate measure taken after a systemic failure to control the spread of COVID-19 infections

The latest lockdown of two weeks declared by Assam health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for Assam’s capital Guwahati seems like a desperate measure taken after a systemic failure to control the spread of COVID-19 infections in the city, and negates the preparations that were put in place during the initial lockdowns.

Coming as it did just as Assam’s biggest and most populous city was struggling to get back on its feet after months of a no-business-no-jobs situation, the health minister owes to the people a better explanation than “this is a desperate measure taken as the people of Guwahati had thrown to the wind all social distancing norms”, to which he attributes the emergence of new cases “with no travel history but contact history”.

The warnings were put out early enough. “Unless there is a congregation I won’t be worried… So isolate, isolate… social distancing…,” said Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, epidemiologist and head of communicable diseases of the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) that is leading India’s war against Covid, while speaking to an online publication mid-April.

While Guwahati isolated well enough despite the number of people coming in across the state’s

borders,the city then let its people run amuck, crowding streets and stores, as though  everything was suddenly fine, as if COVID-19 was a thing of the past. Studies have indicated that asymptomatic yet infected people can transmit the disease while in the asymptomatic period. A study in China showed that 10 patients with a high viral load can infect another 90.

According to William Petri, a professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Virginia who specializes in infectious diseases, the virus also spreads, beyond the cough and sneeze, through normal exhalations that can carry tiny droplets containing the virus. A regular breath may spread the virus several feet or more, he says. And that the virus can also spread through fomites, which include surfaces such as doorknobs or grocery cart handle, that are contaminated with the Coronavirus after it is touched by an infected person. Hence the importance of social distancing.

All of this Guwahati completely ignored the moment its unlocking began. Mostly it was just a sermon on the phone on how people need to be careful during the Unlocking period. Guwahati is not a city that has gone by the rules. In Guwahati, rules need to be enforced. The city didn’t.

Assam had prior to this, used strikingly well the personnel at its disposal to quite effectively regulate the flow of people across the state. That coupled with a health system that is evidently better than what is available in most other states of the country, had made the people of Assam, and those entering Assam, feel safe. Unlike the one neighbouring state from where nurses had fled and where the police had protested, in both cases because of the lack of protection gear, Assam had made arrangements for their nurses and doctors to be quarantined in the best hotels in the city. People who had been quarantined at government facilities were busy uploading pictures of the food being served to them—again from some of the most expensive hotels in Guwahati.

So what happened after that? Why is Guwahati, quite suddenly, in the midst of another lockdown? Why did the government not regulate the city’s population movement? And the administration must have seen the inevitable coming of it as it turned large commercial localities of the city into containment zones.

Why, for example, did the Municipal machinery, the Civil Supplies Department, the Police, Home Guards and other departments concerned not seal shops that were, and blatantly at that, allowing buyers to crowd their premises? Why wasn’t Section 144 of the CrPC not enforced on the streets of Guwahati especially in its commercial areas? Why was the odd-even movement of vehicles which was tried out for two days a few weeks ago not implemented during the Unlocking period?

While not openly talked about, lockdowns have a two-pronged purpose. The one that is talked about is the effort to contain the spread of the disease. What isn’t so openly talked about is the fact that a lockdown also helps the state machinery locate cases of infection as at some point, neighbours will talk about it as will family members till eventually the state can step in and remove an infected person.

The question is: How many lockdowns can we have? How long before businesses cross the recovery threshold and die? Putting the ‘Gateway to the Northeast’ under a lockdown affects the entire Northeast. That is the position Guwahati should never have come to. The lockdown could have been prevented.

Founder Editor... Formerly resident editor (east and northeast) with The Telegraph, editor (Assamese) with The Sunday Indian, has worked with India Today, National Herald and The Sentinel. Has written for India Today Travel Plus, Darpan, The Pioneer, Hindustan Times online edition, The Times of India. Lyricist and singer, enjoys composing, photography, being a chef and travelling