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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Let’s not rush to judgement on the country’s corona response

Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto, rarely holds anything back. In a recent interaction with Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, he said that India’s covid lockdown had “flattened the wrong curve"; (i.e, it had impacted the economy, not the virus’ spread). And even in the lockdown, we chose to follow the “wild west" (i.e, America and Europe) rather such eastern models as South Korea’s and Japan’s.

There is no way to verify such remarks. True, the lockdown sent the economy tumbling, but not only India’s. Whether India’s GDP has been impacted more than the rest or less, we will know only much later; we can’t make this claim just two months into a financial year. As an aside, one must also point out that if our gross domestic product (GDP) curve had really been flattened, it would be a good thing, for it was heading downwards before the lockdown. A flattening of a falling GDP curve would mean stabilisation.

Looking east for models has never been an option for us, as most of Asia is either autocratic (China, Singapore) or monocultural (Japan, Korea). What works for them need not work in India. And, did we actually follow the “wild west" model of Donald Trump’s America, or the mature West’s model of continental Europe (Italy, Spain, France), where covid-19 was killing people by the hundreds when we locked down?

It is not at all clear that covid-combat models that seem to have worked in Japan or South Korea would have fared as well in a highly diverse India, where trust in government and between communities is low. A key element of the South Korean success model was large-scale testing and contract tracing. When a particular church gathering was seen as a “super-spreader", the Korean government quickly set about tracing the contacts of infected persons and got the situation under control. Consider what happened in India. A Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi turned out to be a contributor to the early spread of the infection, but the contact-tracing efforts of various administrations faced resistance, even hostility. These efforts, no doubt complicated by media hysteria, ran into India’s peculiar circumstances of communal relations.

Bajaj may well turn out to be right in his assertions, but we should not rush to declare one particular model or approach a success. What we don’t yet know about the virus—we have barely six months’ knowledge of it—is probably much more than what we do know about it. The first thing to learn from the mistakes and errors made by countries grappling with it, is humility. What if India, with its over-cautious fiscal approach, actually turns out to be among the better performers of a post-covid world?

The need for humility, whether among economists or pandemic “experts" or epidemiologists, should be apparent from the way so many have changed their tune. Fiscal conservatives have become aggressive Keynesians, it seems. Those who always valued lives over livelihoods appear to be letting thousands die (US, most of Europe). America went to war over 3,000 lives of New Yorkers lost in the Twin Towers attack; now the same New York City has counted over 10 times that number of deaths from coronavirus, and the nation is divided—of all things—over race. The same drug administrations that took years to clear a single vaccine are now doing backflips to give any covid vaccine with a snowball’s chance of success in hell a free pass toward human trials.

The pandemic offers an opportunity to observe one of the world’s largest natural experiments, involving large populations, untested policies and half-baked prescriptions, all under hyper media glare. By the end of this year or the next, we will have hundreds of case studies on how we dealt with this pandemic, how we chose to reckon with the massive wealth destruction after the collapse of global economic activity, how the crisis accelerated innovation and creative destruction, and how human behaviour changed as a result.

Consider also the flimsy nature of the protection we have now: hand-washing, masks and social distancing. We can’t know if these protections will do more harm than good in the end. What is the guarantee that frequent hand-washing with soap or alcohol-based sanitisers will not cause skin damage? Who can assure us that using cotton masks for long hours every day for months on end will not trigger some lung infections, as cloth fibre gets breathed in and out? And how long can we go against basic human nature and ask people to maintain their social distance?

What we are witnessing is the theory of evolution and natural selection at work in a compressed time-frame. The theory states evolutionary winners often emerge by accident, rather than a predictable path. Evolution should teach us humility rather than hubris based on which countries succeed or fail in their fight against covid-19.

India can be faulted for imposing a draconian lockdown too early, or lifting it before the country’s infection curve has “flattened". But this is a course correction after recognising that the lockdown is doing more damage than good. Isn’t correcting a mistake, assuming it was one, what evolution tells us to do?

Jumping to premature conclusions would not serve our purpose.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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