Opinion | The lockdown may be doing us more harm than good4 min read . Updated: 30 Mar 2020, 10:48 PM IST
The idea’s bad implementation has put human lives at greater risk with health and livelihoods both at stake
Two weeks ago, in this column, I argued that India needs to significantly restrict travel and enforce social distancing through a shutdown combined with a universal basic income (UBI) or similarly designed non-means-tested direct cash transfer). I argued this knowing a shutdown would have dire economic consequences for the 275 million Indians below the poverty line and the 300-400 million who are vulnerable to economic stress as they are daily-wage earners or informal-sector workers.
My reason was that India’s healthcare capacity is so low that it cannot handle even a small outbreak of Covid-19, let alone the kind of experience Italy or China suffered. Of the BRICs countries (which include Brazil, Russia and China), India spends the least on healthcare per capita, and has the fewest hospitals, hospital beds, intensive care units, doctors, nurses, etc., per thousand persons. Current capacity is already full, with government facilities overcrowded. In case of a significant outbreak, once again, the same 700- million-odd Indians are less likely to have access to quality healthcare. It is easier and quicker to alleviate economic stress caused by the shutdown through cash transfers, than build healthcare capacity, which would take longer.
But the lockdown may turn into a humanitarian crisis because of poor planning. Indian governments have a tendency to ignore the complexity that human decisionmaking embodies. This seems to reflect a failure to view people as individuals, with all the emotions they have. In an earlier column, I had compared various attempts at social and economic engineering with the exertions of Adam Smith’s “man of system", who “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board". Demonetization, attempts at a National Citizens Register, and now the lockdown suggest an approach not very different from that. Each of these has had unintended consequences because of human reactions.
Humans, unlike chess pieces, form expectations, make inferences, respond to incentives, take actions in the face of uncertainty, and display emotions such as worry, anger, resentment, fear and desperation. When a lockdown announcement does not explain how essential goods will be supplied, humans run to stores to stock up. The ideal citizen stays put, but everyone does not have that luxury. When humans, who are paid daily wages hear of a lockdown, they fear economic stress, and worry about their inability to pay rent, buy food and access healthcare. The ideal citizen does no such thing, because he or she places his or her complete trust in the leadership, with no reason to worry about livelihood. When a lockdown declaration does not have any mention of a food subsidy or cash transfer to make up for the economic stress, the human instinct of most is to get close to their families and support systems in order to tide over difficult times. The ideal citizen prioritizes the plan and the country’s good.
The pictures of thousands waiting at a bus terminal in Delhi’s Anand Vihar, videos of Barkha Dutt speaking with economic migrants who are walking and can’t even stop to talk about their distress, and visuals of police using lathis on these people are gut-wrenching, and the scale is frightening. Chinmay Tumbe has pointed out that one-sixth of all Indian households have at least one member who is an economic migrant. Though I am far more privileged, and far less vulnerable to economic and political stress, I am also an economic migrant. Over the last 13 years, I have lived halfway around the globe from my family. My greatest source of anxiety is not being close to them during a family emergency. If I had a financial or medical emergency right now, I would want to be with them. If I felt my parents could not manage alone during the shutdown, I would rush home. The thought of being separated from my family indefinitely because of travel bans and shutdowns worries me. I have not experienced the economic desperation of the migrants who formed crowds in Anand Vihar, hoping to catch buses back to their family homes, but I have experienced their emotional anxiety. And I am not surprised that they wish to go home in dire circumstances, given that the government announced very little by way of assurances to protect them from uncertainty and starvation.
The government, in its containment effort, has made the poorest Indians even more vulnerable. First, because it did not announce instant economic measures, it has probably set in motion what could be the largest mass migration of Indians since Partition. Second, it has exposed millions more to Covid-19, even though the goal of the costly lockdown was containment. Migrants across India could be carrying the virus in packed buses, and the risk of further contagion has risen. The botched way in which curbs were put in place could possibly result in a swift transmission of the virus, especially in Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar, where most of Delhi’s exodus was headed. Third, it could cost many more lives, not just from the virus but also the lockdown, with some of the poorest migrants dying of starvation, exhaustion and dehydration while walking hundreds of kilometres.
With 700 million people faced with the calamitous consequences of a badly planned nationwide lockdown, the only hope is that swift and generous civil-society action can help alleviate some of the suffering.
Shruti Rajagopalan is senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US