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India appears well-set to seize opportunities in the Big Reboot

A worker pulls a loaded cart at a market after authorities allowed shops to open with certain restrictions, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, in Old Delhi. (PTI)Premium
A worker pulls a loaded cart at a market after authorities allowed shops to open with certain restrictions, during the ongoing COVID-19 nationwide lockdown, in Old Delhi. (PTI)

  • India has a large young population that stands a better chance of fighting the disease, say health experts
  • Since the lockdown started on 25 March, almost all economic activity had come to a standstill

The nation’s young population, a low coronavirus-related mortality rate, and the fact that vast parts of the country are virus free can help India restart the economy without triggering a new wave of infections.

The government has already lifted some restrictions to economic activity in green zones—districts where coronavirus cases have not surfaced for the past 21 days—and is preparing for a staged end to the world’s largest lockdown.

Health experts claim most Indians have a fair chance of recovering as the country has a large young population who stand a better chance to fight the disease. India’s population of the elderly is just 8.5%, much lower than the 25% in countries that are bearing the brunt of covid-19.

“India’s young population is a positive sign that will build natural immunity to covid-19 and recover," said Dr Jugal Kishore, professor and head, department of community medicine, Safdarjung Hospital. “The global mortality rate is around 7%. India has a mortality rate of around 3%, and around 86% of fatalities are of people with co-morbidity. Keep the elderly and co-morbid at home," he said.

The elderly and those with co-morbidities such as diabetes, hypertension, heart, and kidney ailments are the most vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

At 28%, India’s recovery rate also compares well with the world average of 27%. About 85% of the deaths are being reported from Maharashtra, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, according to latest government data. Stringent steps adopted by India to limit the spread of the virus have severely hit the economy and rendered millions of people jobless.

However, what is heartening is that 319 of India’s 736 districts are now covid-free for 21 days. That’s the good news. The bad news is that cases within the hotspots are swelling, and many hotspots are major industrial areas such as some of those in Delhi and Mumbai.

Since the lockdown started on 25 March, almost all economic activity had come to a standstill. Food processing units, drug makers, and medical equipment manufacturers have remained open as they are considered essential services.

The government on Friday extended the national lockdown by two more weeks from 4 May

while easing curbs in places where there is no or limited incidence of coronavirus infections. Regardless of zones, some activities such as air travel and rail travel—with some exceptions—will continue to remain out of bounds to prevent a relapse.

“The time has come to restart the economic engine of the country, considering the current covid-19 situation," said Arup Mitra, professor of economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi. Health economists argued that the country has to think of creating opportunities for those displaced from their work in red zones where normalcy may not return very quickly.

“Inter-state and inter-district movement of men and material should also be allowed, even if there are red zones, said Dr Sakhtivel Selvaraj, director of health economics, financing and policy, at the Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private partnership. “The intervention must be tempered based on emerging evidence."

Health economists have also argued that the country has to think of creating opportunities for those displaced from their work in red zones where normalcy may not return very quickly.

“The covid -19 crisis can provide an opportunity to think about designing the rural non-farm sector in a constructive manner, which can contribute to productive activities and livelihood creation. Similarly, as we free the regions gradually from the lockdown we must reflect on pathways that can make the urban informal economy more healthy and productive," saidMitra.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said that sectors where work from home is difficult and which provide mass employment could be restarted first. The industry body called for economic contribution of districts to be taken into consideration while classifying Lockdown Zones. Districts with high economic activity should resume all industrial and business operations, including in Containment Zones with highest safety protocols, said CII in its report ‘A Strategy Note on Resumption of Economic Activities in Industrial Areas’ submitted to the Government. The submission follows the notification issued on 1 May by the Government on graded exit from the Covid-19 related lockdown.

“The third phase of lockdown necessitates a focused strategy to minimize economic contraction due to Covid-19, without compromising on efforts to control the contagion. Prioritizing districts with heavy presence of economic and industrial activities with continued operations accompanied by strictest precautions can help enterprises to remain financially sustainable while averting job losses," said Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General, CII.

CII said that the top districts should be identified based on variables like their contribution to country’s GDP, or presence of industrial estates and clusters or registration of enterprises in a district.

Instead of the current practice of classifying the entire district as a Red zone, CII has suggested the need for classifying zones as Containment, Orange and Green within an industrial district. Economic activities, in varying degrees of relaxation, should be permitted in all areas of this district but health and safety protocols would differ from zone to zone.

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