Scale up tests: The best way to do this quickly enough is for government to pick up the tab

In the war against Covid-19, government will need more data. The world over, authorities have been compelled to devise countermeasures based on estimates. It’s essential therefore to take steps which give a more realistic assessment of the spread of the virus. Right now in India, lacking sufficient information could delay exiting from the lockdown. The only way to get a better idea of the likely spread of the virus is to ramp up testing.

To put this in context, Maharashtra government reported that 76% of cases detected were from asymptomatic carriers. The fear of asymptomatic carriers in the absence of adequate data triggers drastic decisions – Odisha, for instance, extended the lockdown till the month’s end. It’s in this context that one must place the Supreme Court’s important intervention, through an interim order, which said private labs must conduct tests for free.

The intent to ramp up testing is right. But testing also costs money. If costs cannot be recovered, many private labs will shy away from providing services. This would be tantamount to wasting resources in an emergency. The solution here is to go into PPP mode, with the government setting protocols and underwriting the costs of testing. Today, about 15,000-16,000 tests are carried out daily and the government’s aim is to reach 40,000. This can happen quickly only if every available resource, public or private, is used. The relevant costs for comparison are an extension of the lockdown which will result in a far bigger shock to the economy, compared to government underwriting tests to facilitate a quicker exit. The latter therefore would be a public investment that will pay for itself many times over.

A warlike situation is when the conventional rulebook is replaced by measures which deal exclusively with the emergency. For example, the UK central bank is now the first one to directly finance the government’s immediate costs of fighting the coronavirus. India too finds itself in an unprecedented situation. It calls for speedy decisions driven by the need to simultaneously save lives and livelihoods. Testing is the most critical tool in getting a clear picture of the spread of the virus. Anything which ramps up testing must be on the government’s playbook. There’s no time to be lost.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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