Bengal's Two-Random-Days-a-Week Lockdown Plan Has No Scientific Rationale: Experts

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s supporters claim the measure is based on an IISc study, but the professors who created the research model were not consulted and say the study is being wrongly applied.

Kolkata: In an attempt to contain the rising graph of COVID-19 infections, the West Bengal government on Monday announced a complete lockdown in the state for two random days every week. The days of the lockdown will change every week based on an announcement by the administration at a prior date.

“After consultation with medical personnel and experts, it has been collectively decided that a complete lockdown will be ensured across the state for two days in addition to the ongoing containment zone strategy,” said Alapan Bandyopadhyay, home secretary of West Bengal, at a media briefing.

All offices and transport services across the state will be shut on those two days. This week, full lockdowns will occur on Thursday and Saturday. Next week, the shutdown will be on July 29. Further dates will be announced later, Bandyopadhyay said.

Nobody at this briefing could explain the rationale behind why the lockdown will be only for two days a week. According to Bandyopadhyay, “Sudden lockdown for a day or two in a week could improve the spread of infections.” But he did not explain how this could happen.

After the briefing, The Wire reached out to Bandyopadhyay over the phone and via text messages. He has not responded so far.

However, the West Bengal health secretary N.S. Nigam said: “The order has been issued by the chief secretary, so I don’t want to comment on it. Definitely there was a thought process and it will help us combat the situation.”

Nigam told The Wire that the rise in COVID-19 cases was probably due to increased testing. “But mostly the cases are asymptomatic or with mild symptoms,” he added.

Representative image of medics wearing PPE kits to conduct COVID-19 rapid antigen test. Photo: PTI

‘Two-day lockdowns have no value’

There is no science behind the measure of randomly locking down for a day or two, said professor Giridhar R. Babu, head of Lifecourse Epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru, who is part of the ICMR’s research task force. He added:

“I believe this is to bring a change in the behaviour of people by restricting travel and interactions. It seems as though the West Bengal government kept the lockdown days random so that people can’t plan their travel and are caught by surprise. But no science or epidemiology can explain such a decision and there is no evidence so far to prove that decisions like this are improving the situation.”

In general, two-day lockdowns are of no value, said Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Washington-based Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP) and lecturer at Princeton University. “The time for lockdown is over,” Dr Laxminarayan told The Wire.

“Any call for a lockdown reflects a lack of control over the epidemic because of inadequate testing. I would prefer that we expand the testing and isolate infectious individuals rather than shut down entire cities and states. A lockdown has limited to no value.”

Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan. Photo: Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy website

Soon after the Bengal government announced the new clampdown plan, citizens and opposition leaders began questioning the decision.

In a tweet, Swapan Dasgupta, the BJP Rajya Sabha MP, said: “@MamataOfficial has made a mark heading the country’s most eccentric regime. Governance in the state is a Mad Hatter’s Party. For those who say otherwise, it’s ‘off with their head’.”

Some Trinamool Congress sympathisers put a spin on the plan and said the Bengal government is following a mathematical model suggested by the researchers of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

The research model and its findings

The Wire spoke to professor Sashikumaar Ganesan and professor Deepak Subramani of Computational and Data Science (CDS) department of IISc, Bengaluru, who had jointly developed a model to predict the spread of pandemics in India.

Here are some of the key observations of the research model:

  • A computational study and recent observations show that there will be around 35 lakhs of COVID-19 infected cases in India by the first week of September 2020. If the COVID-19 spreads continue to follow the worst-case scenario, India might have one crore COVID-19 infected cases by end October 2020.
  • Periodic lockdowns and lockdowns of one or two days a week with complete compliance together with adequate social distancing on the other days of the week is an effective method to reduce the spread.
  • Sparsely imposing region-wise lockdowns will have an adverse effect since people will travel or migrate from the locked down region to other regions and might spread or bring back the disease.

The third point of the research findings was masked by the Trinamool supporters.

Ganesan, who is the chairman of the CDS department, told The Wire that this model was created with the pan-India situation in mind, which means it cannot be deemed fit for any particular state. “Our model is based on the parameters and the current estimations of India as a whole,” he said. “A partial lockdown or region-based lockdown will have an adverse effect.”

According to Subramani, the meaning of ‘lockdown’ used in their model is somewhat different from the meaning most people ascribe to the word.

“We don’t mean the closing of activities by the administration,” he explained. “There needs to be a fundamental change in the behaviour of people in society. All social distancing norms must be adhered to even on other days. Increasing the number of tests and reducing the testing period will consequently help reduce new infections. Efficient nation-wide contact tracing and the early quarantine of infected people are key to containing the pandemic. So it is not just one or two days of lockdown that will curb the infection spread, but all the above-mentioned measures followed collectively that can improve the current scenario.”

The Bengaluru-based professors categorically said that the choice of days in the two-days-a-week lockdown was purely based keeping economic activity in mind and had no direct co-relation with science. “We choose one weekday and one weekend with an aim of a balancing act between economic activity and a clampdown.”

Asked if anyone from the West Bengal administration consulted them recently on their model, both the professors replied with a brief “no”.

West Bengal has seen a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the last three weeks. Multiple reports in the state say the treatment of patients has been negligent, billing exorbitant and that patients are being denied treatment by certain private hospitals.

Between July 1 and July 21, the total number of cases in the state jumped by 145% from 19,170 to 47,030. Daily cases spiked from around 600 to around 2,300 in this period. And the number of fatalities has increased from 683 to 1,188, a jump of 73%.

During these 20 days, tests in the state conducted rose from 4,95,596 on July 1 to 7,29,429 on July 21, an increase of a nominal 47%.

Currently, there are 893 containment zones spread across the state, where restrictions on the movement of people are enforced. Other than the containment zones, several regions of the state, such as Dum Dum, Naihati and Baranagar, have been under complete lockdown since the beginning of this week.