The lockdown honeymoon had degenerated into fatigue by the end of the first 21 days. Now if the 'haves' are bursting with stress, the 'have nots' are reeling under distress. As we get closer to May 3 — the announced date of Lockdown 2.0 ending, there are murmurs about the possibility of another extension. Simultaneously, there is also a strong view that keeping the country shut for any longer will not only be counter-productive, but cause permanent damage to the economy too.
By and large, there is an agreement that the net result of the lockdown was positive. Counter-factual analysis, done by many experts, indicate, without lockdown the Covid-19 curve would have ballooned out of control. It is, therefore, no mean achievement for the government to have implemented such a tough decision across the length and breadth of India and on 1.3 billion people for nearly five weeks. Certainly, it could not have happened without the support of the people. So, a big shout out is due for every citizen of the country.
The net result of the lockdown was positive. (Photo: Twitter/ @ShamikaRavi)
However, in any intervention – the Law of Diminishing Returns will set in after a point. Just like it would have been difficult to determine the right time to press the button for the lockdown, when to lift it will also be a matter of judgment. A phased exit appears to be the most logical way forward. But, there are no foolproof exit strategies. Governments across the world are struggling to find exit formulae appropriate for their country with experts sharply divided on the right way forward. So, it is not a problem unique to India. If anything, it is multi-layered and far more complex.
It is a question of deciding the right time to lift the lockdown. (Photo: Reuters)
To say that, the trade-off is between life and livelihood would be a truism. But, the choice is not as simple as black and white. The lockdown was imposed to break the chain of community transmission on the one hand, and to buy time for building capacity to fight the virus on the other. Even if one allows some slack for possible window dressing of data by the states and limitations of testing, as questioned by some, the achievement in checking the spread has been impressive. The rapid ramp-up of the public health machinery and mobilisation of nearly 13 million healthcare personnel (approximately one per cent of the population) within a month has been a phenomenal achievement.
While that does not mean we are out of the woods, it does inspire confidence for a calibrated and controlled rollback of the lockdown and gradual restoration of normal economic activity. However, a ‘one size fits all’ solution will not work. It has to be tailor-made not only for each state, but specific micro-geographies. Similarly, the relaxation cannot be across the board for all sectors. It will require a phased approach with a high weightage on socio-economic priorities.
Undoubtedly, daily wage earners of all categories have to be rehabilitated first. However, this poses the challenge of providing work wherever they are at present to avoid cross country movements immediately. This means work will have to start in the populous states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, who supply labour to urban India. At the same time, labour-intensive activities – such as construction – will have to pick up in the big cities to check further reverse migration. The food and perishables supply chain will have to be reactivated on a fast track. Not only is it linked to the livelihood of millions, but its revival will also have a positive cascading effect on the rural economy. However, maintaining social distancing norms will be a big test. But, hope that with increased awareness, the workforce will exercise greater caution in their own interest.
Undoubtedly, daily wage earners of all categories have to be rehabilitated first. (Photo: Reuters)
But, many more hurdles will remain. What will the states do with mass transit systems like Metro and suburban rail? Or for that matter, city public transport? With our buses and trains packed like sardines, these can be potential contagion hazards. That is why a staggered policy of reopening will be helpful to control the load on the system. Therefore, one hears of factories starting with 50 per cent strength and ‘work from home’ practice to be continued for a longer period whenever and wherever feasible. Besides, employers may also opt for operating with lower staff strength in offices by alternating workdays for batches of employees to reduce cramming of workspace.
While talking of the big numbers, we cannot forget smaller groups on the margins of society — the sex workers, entertainers and craftsmen, for example — who are not in the spotlight. Their lives will remain dislocated for a long time even after the lockdown ends. They cannot be left under the care of the NGOs alone. The government will have to provide them with a safety net — not only in terms of income, but also ensuring they remain safe from a health and hygiene standpoint.
Finally, the return to normalcy will also hinge a lot on the resumption of domestic airlines, passenger rail services and interstate road transport. Sooner than later, India will also have to open its airports for international travel, even if selectively. It will probably happen over a staggered time table. But, the existence of many in the hospitality, travel and tourism sector depends on the move.
States will have to chalk out a plan for resuming mass transit systems like Metro and suburban rail. (Photo: Reuters)
It has been a long haul and the end may not be in sight yet. But, the future does not look as bleak. In these four weeks, India has given hope not only to her citizens, but the world at large. We have set an example of how, when people stand together as a nation, it is a matter of time before light appears at the end of the tunnel. Let us build on the positives so far (which are a lot), rather than diss the system for what could have been done better. Finally, it is India who has to win.