Getting India Back on Track, Post Lockdown
Adjustments in public life
Since March 22, 2020, the country has been completely shut down. While the decision to enter into a 40 day lockdown was made with the essential intention to contain the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, it has not been without its consequences.
The already ravaged economy has taken a turn for the worse: Millions are surviving on the benevolence of food camps and assembled groups seeking to ease hardships, and those nearing the poverty line prefer a virus they do not understand to the destitution they are becoming all too familiar with.
A popular opinion is that India, through these strict impositions, has chosen to sacrifice its economy for the lives of the people. However, how gainful or in vain this gamble has been will depend on how we choose to proceed after the lockdown officially ends.
The COVID-19 causing propensities of the novel coronavirus know no race, no country and no lockdown. Flattening the curve is simply a battle and not the war and while the lockdown has seemingly won in this case, it in no way means that the fight is over.
Thus, if normalcy of the “pre-corona times” is resumed, physical distancing is abandoned and gatherings resume, the situation will be back to square one or perhaps, even worse.
Combined with the glaring prospect that, due to lack of adequate testing, there are still hundreds of undiscovered contagious clusters, a second and more devastating wave of the pandemic becomes a very likely scenario.
At the same time, the economy cannot be expected to cope with the ensuing debacle should the restrictions be extended.
An indefinite lockdown is out of the question and the only definite way out of this is the development of an effective vaccine.
In Britain, human trials set up by the University of Oxford have been launched while those in Germany are awaiting approval. In India, Zydus Cadila, Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech are among the firms working on setting up trial procedures. However, even the most optimistic of scientists and pharmaceutical firms in the world do not harbour hopes for the availability of an effective solution any sooner than December.
With the two aforementioned courses of action are out of service, many are looking towards trumping COVID-19 with the virus itself -- by acquiring herd immunity. In layman’s terms, the concept involves letting the virus run its course infecting people. As and when individuals acquire the disease, they will be sequestered and eventually a large percentage of the population will acquire immunity against the virus.
Herd immunity will be procured when approximately 60% of the population becomes immune to the virus after being affected by it.
However, there is an understandable reason why the United Kingdom abandoned this policy after adopting it. It becomes controversial when the death toll is taken into account. There is no guarantee that the people infected by the virus will recover to be immune and not succumb to it.
Further, it presents a risk of unmanageable burden on the medical resources in case there is an uncontrollable influx of patients. Thus, while the concept holds onto its advantages, for a nation of limited medical resources and 1.3 billion people, it is not a small risk to undertake.
Therefore, for the government, the prudent way forward becomes an attempt to bring in a semblance of normalcy while ensuring minimum opportunities for the proximity that sustains the coronavirus. Concurrently, the immediate concern, aggressive and extensive testing will allow the containment of contagion in the selected recuperation areas and thereby, stop its spread to the rest.
However, compounding an already drastic state of affairs is the newfound problem of faulty testing kits.
Several European nations brought forth complaints against faulty protective equipment and testing kits which had been procured from China with the Spanish Government reporting that more than 60000 test kits panned about to be defective.
Upon discovery of the same in India, the Indian Council for Medical Research asked the states to cease testing for 2 days while the validity of the testing kits in stock was determined. This delay will slow down what is already the slowest testing rate in the world.
Further, there has come to light an inexplicable reluctance to conduct tests hidden behind the argument of global shortage of test kits. Engagements of foreign media persons with undisclosed medical staff in the country reveal instances of deaths potentially caused by COVID-19 where patients as well as the possibly infected relatives were left untested. The official numbers may as well be comforting since the grim reality suggests that testing was done in very few and limited cases.
Getting the economy back on its feet will be an onerous feat. The Government has the opportunity to show its effectiveness when too many facets of the system have been rendered ineffective.
It needs to offer small-scale businesses credit with zero interest and working capital to fuel their start and exemption of Goods and Services Tax is a necessary concession. Same goes for the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). Additionally, consideration should be accorded to the possibility of dividing the load of employee salaries between the Government and the enterprises for the initial months till the businesses are up and running.
The plight of the migrant workers, arguably the worst affected of the lot, should be eased with unemployment allowances and ration for an adequate amount of time.
The harvest season of the Rabi crops, the output of which was estimated at approximately 134 million tonnes, has clashed with the lockdown period. Though movement of farmers has been placed outside of the purview of the imposed restrictions, there is still a large labour force involved in the harvest, processing and post-processing transportation and distribution of the produce. In the weeks following the lockdown announcement, thousands of the workforce have moved to their native towns, leaving significant gaps in the process.
With the profitable Kharif season onset, precious time and resources for the Indian farmer have become unavailable to make most of. Immediate provisions in the form of credit without interest, seeds and fertilizers should be made for the sowing of Kharif crops.
Though a favourable agricultural season is predicted for 2020 as a result of the El Nino phenomenon, it can only be availed of when the agricultural sector remains fully-functional and free from disruptions.
As a result of the lockdown and businesses being unable to cope with the strain, a large percentage of people find themselves dismissed from service. Unemployment benefits should be allotted to the affected section and renewal of jobs should be sought.
With the restrictions on movement lifted, the professions which do not allow a work-from-home experience, which includes almost all except for the IT and IT enabled services, can be functional again. However, measures should be taken to ensure minimal contact. Public transportation with protocols of appropriate distance between commuters can provide some measure of safety, for example, a distance of three seats on the metro. Traffic can be controlled by adopting a scheme similar to the Odd-Even rationing issued by the Delhi Government to control pollution. Similar provisions can be applied to the education system, allowing some instead of no education at all.
Amidst the prevailing uncertainty, the government must embrace transparency to provide some veneer of reassurance and safety. The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) has attracted large donations from people along with the contributions of salaries of various government departments. To avoid concerns about misappropriation of funds, the masses must be kept aware of the use of the accumulated finances: When, where and how usefully is the Fund being handled?
All the information so far garnered about the coronavirus, its effects, the combat attempts and mechanisms all point to one somber conclusion: The disease is here to stay till the vaccine is procured which will take months if not years. Thus, adjustments need to be made for public life to coexist with the virus.
Madhukar Jetley is MLC Uttar Pradesh