When the pandemic unfolded, many – including this writer – were of the view that Covid-19 will change the way we live and work for good. “A crisis is too good an opportunity to waste,” say the wise. But after 100 days, as the government relaxed the lockdown and public ennui set in, we are getting back to square one as it were. Restrictions are being freely flouted and rules of wearing masks, personal hygiene and social distancing are being recklessly breached. This is yet another example of “we (Indians) are like that only”.
However, it would be unfair to blame the Indians alone. Visuals from abroad of the merry Parisians lounging in cafes, or Americans protesting outside the White House show that citizens in those countries are no less cavalier. In India, however, the situation is slightly different. It started with pious exhortations of “We must learn to live with Corona”. From there, we seem to be fast reaching a stage of “to the hell with Corona”.
There is a need to delve deeper into why we are regressing into our innate fatalistic mindset.
The foremost reason is that having lived through the trauma of lockdown, people are not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. While the expectation was not of a vaccine or cure coming up in a short time, the hope for minimum public health infrastructure like hospital beds, quarantine facilities, availability of testing kits to combat the virus was not out of place. On this score, both the Centre and the state governments have failed miserably. Counter-intuitive as it may appear, metros (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai) and mini-metros (Indore and Pune) have turned out to be a bigger problem than smaller towns and villages.
Though it seemed counter-intuitive in the beginning, hindsight shows that the migrant workers were wise to return home rather than being trapped in urban hotspots. From statistics available so far, even allowing for under-reporting, the “other India” or “Bharat” appears to be in better shape than urban India. As per economic indicators as well, it is the rural demand and good crops that have kept the engine of the economy cranking through the lockdown.
As I have written in the earlier dispatches, less crammed lifestyle in villages and greater awareness of the potential dangers of the virus has prevented the community spread of Covid-19. The catastrophe has been averted in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. In comparison, living conditions in cities do not allow for social distancing — especially in low-income settlements. Besides, as observed in the past, city dwellers tend to be more casual in following hygiene discipline, either due to complacence or financial compulsions for going out to work. It is also true that lack of infrastructure has left the majority of the urban population to fend for themselves.
By now, everyone has realised that neither will Covid-19 disappear in a hurry nor will the extension of lockdown solve the problem. If governments — Centre or the states — have been struggling to ramp up pandemic management even after three months, it is unlikely to get much better if more time is allowed to the laggard states to get their act together. There is a high probability of the situation going downhill for several reasons. Availability of healthcare workers and doctors will become an issue as more among them contract infection or suffer psychological burnout. Besides, the country will face a mammoth health crisis if the entire system is directed for the management of a single disease for an extended period. The risk of other infectious diseases like tuberculosis spiralling due to lack of treatment and preventive interventions has already been highlighted by medical experts.
The pain is beginning to hurt everyone. While the daily-wage earners are suffering the most, those employed in the service economy and salaried employees facing pay cuts and retrenchment is a massive humanitarian crisis that is looming on the horizon. Businessmen and industrialists are not any better off, with many industrial units looking at losses and even bankruptcy in the not-too-distant future. Desperation is setting in at all levels and across sections.
Considering all these factors, the situation is ripe for people to throw caution to the wind and jump headlong into work – just for the sake of the survival of self and families. That raises a very scary prospect that the country cannot afford. Without a doubt, the nation has to get back to work. However, to ensure that it is done safely and responsibly is the challenge that should worry not just the government, but also business owners.
Going ahead, the industry has an equal responsibility as the government to get the wheels of the economy rolling. This has to go beyond reopening offices, operating factories and projects going. Contrary to predictions, it appears that certain old realities are not going to change in a hurry. Employers are coming to realise India may not be ready for “work from home” except for a handful of industries. Similarly, construction practices will remain manpower-intensive. Robots are not going to run factories once Unlock 2.0 ends.
The question that logically follows is that what corporates can do to fuel the economic cycle. First, they need to make workplaces genuinely safe, beyond the tokenism of masks and hand sanitisers. As state-run hospitals are overflowing, organisations can think of creating quarantine facilities for employees, especially the migrant workers.
How can businesses help rev up demand? Again, they need to look downstream to make shops and offices safer for customers. This will, in turn, give the consumer the confidence to step out. For instance, liquor and soft drink companies can sanitise bars and restaurants and ensure health and hygiene standards for the staff. Some food delivery services have already started rating associates. This can be emulated by other industries as well, like the FMCG for salons. If suppliers go the extra mile to ensure safety and hygiene of the premises and also for the staff, it can go a long way.
However, this need not stop with the F&B and luxury consumer products. If some of the marketing spends are redirected to subsidise distributors for engaging feet on street salesforce and providing them with PPEs and Covid medical insurance, it can start a virtuous cycle.
Right now, the focus is entirely on how to bring people back to work in factories and construction sites. One gathers that the contractors and employers are willing to increase the wage rates and provide incentives to make it lucrative for migrant labour to return to the big cities. However, it will be an encore of the earlier fiasco if living conditions and access to medical care do not change. There is little point in resuming production if dozens of workers test positive soon afterwards, and the factories have to be shut down. As a part of CSR work, the business can make colonies and dwelling quarters of workmen more hygienic, say, by arranging periodic sanitisation of homes and health check-ups of family members.
Similarly, the government will also have to think of innovative interventions. Hundreds of luxury tourist coaches that are standing idle can be redeployed for white-collar office executives ensuring social distancing at a cost, which will be a win-win for all. Indian Railways have displayed quick thinking in converting coaches to quarantine units. They can further this by running Chair Cars (AC and Non-AC) between fixed points on suburban routes for office-goers who can afford higher fares. Petroleum companies can also step in to sanitise black and yellow cabs and autos to make them safer for passengers.
Finally, there is no way we can win the battle against Covid-19 without co-opting private healthcare providers. While commercial hospitals cannot be allowed to exploit the crisis, drafting them by issuing “firmans” and setting arbitrary rate cards will not help. A viable model will have to be worked out with the help of IRDA (Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority) or some other body, that will make it viable for multi-speciality hospitals to keep all their departments running for serving Covid and non-Covid patients. This might entail an element of subsidy from the government that can be paid directly to the patients’ accounts through the insurance companies. Unless a holistic solution is found, the system will collapse sooner than one can imagine.
By and large, India has done well so far, given the size, population and complexity of the country. But the war is not even half over. Gains achieved so far can be easily undone by a few follies. We cannot risk taking off our masks, and the nation has to stay mobilised and engaged for a long time with the coronavirus that is as unpredictable as its country of origin. We cannot afford to let our guard down any time soon.