As we begin the transition from a nine-week nationwide lockdown to a phased reopening (or Unlock 1, as the latest Union Ministry of Home Affairs guidelines niftily call it) one set of reactions has been to enthusiastically welcome the permission to carry on most public activities as a spur for our deadlocked economy, while the other set has called for caution and a hard lockdown in order to keep the infection rate from ballooning up.

This divide is crudely packaged as the ‘lives vs livelihood’ debate, leaving our poor policymakers caught between a rock and a hard place, or so we are led to believe. We are told that the country’s economy, choked by over two months of stasis, can only recover if we ditch the lockdown and reopen society.

We are made to accept that the only policy directions available before ‘us’ are either hard lockdowns of the recent sort, where the state left us to fend for ourselves and enforced our obedience through brute police force – or reopening society as fully as possible so people can go out, eat and shop and earn their livelihoods at the risk of exposing themselves to Covid-19.

Let us take a step back and ask ourselves: Why did the central government impose a lockdown in the first place? During his nationally televised speech to announce it, prime minister Narendra Modi stated that if “we listen to the health experts, we know that 21 days are crucial to break the cycle of transmission”.

At that point the government of India had detected 519 Covid-19 patients with 10 fatalities. Yet here we are, over two months later, with the patient count set to cross the three lakh mark before the end of this week, and our infection rate escalating at the fastest pace in Asia.

Far from breaking the cycle of transmission, slowing the spread or ‘flattening the curve’ while governments ‘raised the bar’ of existing medical capacity, even official figures show our infection rate curve threatens to get steeper with each passing day.

The scenes we have shamefully witnessed across the nation, of giant crowds of labourers at bus terminals in Delhi and Ghaziabad, repeated protests in Mumbai, Thane, Chennai and Surat, at Shramik train registration sites in Ghaziabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai, as well as within these Shramik trains, in several instances over March, April and May show not only that physical distancing is a chimera for most workers, but the utter mismanagement they are subjected to by the Indian state apparatus has actively forced them into tightly crowded spaces.

No wonder, then, that several of these migrant labourers are being confirmed as Covid positive on returning to their home states, leading to a spike in the incidence of Covid cases in these states. Rather than limiting the spread of the virus, our flawed policies have led to the virus spreading from urban to rural India.

It seems, therefore, that the lockdown achieved physical distancing primarily for upper-class India, having failed to track and isolate international arrivals of Covid-19 in the first place.

Why are we unlocking?

It appears counterintuitive that just as we are experiencing a surge in detected infections, we are moving to end the lockdown. Most countries eased restrictions only after flattening their curves, that is, after achieving a reduction in their respective rates of infection. The WHO has warned that countries which ease restrictions too soon will suffer from a fresh surge of infections, as has been seen in Germany, South Korea, Lebanon and Singapore.

It is reasoned that while the lockdown saved lives, it knocked out our national economy, so we need to reopen the country and get back to work in order to get the economy on track. Very well, but what about the gains the lockdown achieved – are we going to fritter them away now by exposing people to a greater risk of infection?

The inescapable conclusion is that the basis of the state’s decision to unlock is economic distress, rather than public health considerations grounded in science.

So it becomes important to ask: Who has survived the lockdown economically?

While the coronavirus has been called ‘the great equaliser’, the policy response of a nationwide lockdown is anything but. If you belong to the white collar class, you are most likely to have continued working from home through your personal computer or other devices, or have enough personal savings to be able to afford not to work for a few months and ride out the lockdown.

On the other hand, if you’re part of the blue collar working class (those referred to as migrant labourers or daily wagers), that is, you work with your hands, or your work is of the sort that cannot be conducted over the internet, then the lockdown has frozen you out of work, and most likely driven you to destitution.

The Center for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that 9.1 crore small traders and wage labourers, who account for 71% of all workers in this group, lost their jobs in April.

These are the people from the most vulnerable families in our society, the ones worst hit by the lockdown, forced to engage in the tapasya and tyaag (penance and sacrifice) that Prime Minister Modi extols, those who have suffered almost all the 742 reported deaths (as on 31 May) due to the lockdown – in accidents while walking, by starvation and financial distress, through police brutality, exhaustion from standing in lines or walking, deaths in the Shramik trains, and suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness or inability to go home.

When the only choices are to fend for oneself without food or shelter, or engage in the Kafkaesque nightmare of online registration for special trains and buses created by the state, then of course reopening the economy right away seems like the best option. It is the only way to ensure you will survive, raging pandemic be damned.

In the absence of state support, for most people, staying home from work during a pandemic is not an option. Those of us who can work from home, or can afford not to work for longer, will continue to stay within our homes, lockdown or no lockdown. Unless trust is established within the public that the pandemic is under control, no one will be stepping out voluntarily. Those who are doing so, putting themselves and their family and community at risk of contracting the virus, are doing it out of economic distress.

No one should have to risk exposure to a contagion in order to earn enough to eat. This is no ‘choice’ at all. The state has presented most workers with this choice – die from hunger or from the virus – preventing them from imagining anything different or demanding it, stuck as they are having to choose the lesser of two dangers.

As we transition towards unlocking, the danger of this false choice must be kept in mind. If a worker chooses not to work for fear of contracting the disease (especially if they are old, or have pre-existing health conditions) then they are considered as choosing not to work. This is no choice at all.

With the state unilaterally deciding to take away the livelihoods of 9.1 crore people, the social contract demands that in return, it provide all these people with the means of securing their lives, so they can survive and stay put wherever they are.

In such a society, the state would provide everyone with the basic means of sustenance, and demonstrably bring the pandemic under control, before allowing citizens to choose whether to return to work.

In a neoliberal society, on the other hand, state resources are being spent on the terribly mismanaged transport of people from their work states to their home states, instead of providing them sustenance where they are put.

Only in a neoliberal society can we have crores of people grappling with hunger and homelessness while farmers across the nation are forced to throw away or destroy quintals of fruits, vegetables, milk and poultry harvested by them, due to obstacles in the fast movement of perishable agricultural products, while the Food Corporation of India sits on food grain stock that is sufficient for supply to all Indian citizens for a full year, and while most of the inventory of 27.2 lakh rooms in India’s hotel/hospitality sector lie vacant.

When, in the midst of a workers’ crisis the state foregoes its duty to support the citizenry using public money, and focuses instead on violent policing to enforce obedience, workers stop expecting the state to have a role in their economic well-being altogether, and start believing that the state’s responsibility is restricted to policing, ‘surgical strikes’ and empty exhortations to collective rites like clapping, lighting oil lamps and standing in lines before ATM machines.

Pushing for a return to the status quo in the midst of a raging pandemic will only aggravate the crisis by exposing those who are the most financially vulnerable, those who have been pressed by their financial vulnerability to ‘return to work’ at the risk of contracting the virus, without addressing their financial vulnerability, except by demanding they perform hazardous wage-work to sustain themselves.

Unlocking is neoliberal capitalism’s excuse to defer the state’s responsibility to workers. The idea that this system of political economy can meet the needs of all members of society stands thoroughly discredited.

This crisis has provided us as a nation with an opportunity to discuss alternative modes of producing and distributing wealth in our society, so that a break of a few weeks or months in anyone’s wage-work doesn’t drive them into destitution.

Yet ideas like debt forgiveness, a universal income, or enhanced social security nets, all legitimate policy solution candidates for the present scenario, are not even on the table politically, except for big businesses.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has offered us a limp economic relief package that, apart from actually spending only a fraction of its advertised 20 lakh crore rupees, promises to uphold the status quo.

Meanwhile the state governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh are attempting to bring in labour law ‘reforms’ that will further aid the structural consolidation and hegemony of capital, and further disempower workers in these states by denying them basic labour rights.

This dichotomy of choices between a penal lockdown and forced unlocking is false, reductive, and indicative of the limits of the hierarchical imagination that warps the wisdom and thinking of our economic policy makers.

It also lets them off the hook for any further surge in the infection rate: after all, they had no choice but to reopen the economy, it was for the workers’ sake.

The unlocking may come as a relief to the working class, but the state is still shortchanging us.

Vineet Bhalla is a Delhi-based lawyer