Opinion | The means and ends of a policy should not be confused4 min read . Updated: 26 May 2020, 12:29 AM IST
A lockdown isn’t a goal in itself but just a way to buy time for other efforts to fight covid and flatten its curve
The covid health and economic crisis in India has been worsened by the government confusing means with ends. To refresh our collective memory, experts across the world supported interventions to increase social distancing. The goal was to help governments, private institutions and communities scale up their capacity to deal with the pandemic. In India, the government appears to have treated the lockdown as a policy end in itself. And its focus has been to better enforce successive versions of the lockdown.
One specific goal of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve", so that exponential growth of covid-19 cases would not overwhelm hospitals. The lower the healthcare capacity of a country, the more severe the restrictions to achieve the goal. Given India’s relatively low healthcare capacity, it seemed necessary to buy a few weeks to scale up testing, tracing and treatment capacity. Another purpose of the restrictions was to educate citizens to take the pandemic more seriously and adjust their social behaviour. While still an extremely high-cost solution, for 2-3 weeks people could have managed and survived with some food relief, income support, community support, savings, etc.
But several weeks into the world’s most restrictive lockdown, that goal has been forgotten. Instead, each version of the lockdown seeks to improve upon the mistakes of earlier ones. For instance, after national outrage, the trauma imposed on migrant workers in lockdowns 1, 2, and 3 is slowly getting corrected in lockdown 4. As of 25 May, PRS Legislative Research reports a total of 718 Union government and 4,079 state government notifications on covid.
A good example of this confusion between means and ends is the Aarogya Setu app, with its policy goal of enabling contact tracing and social distancing. The app was full of bugs, not unusual for a new application launched at this scale. Its architecture raised specific concerns about privacy, data collection and surveillance. In response, improving the app was made a goal, and the original purpose of using it as one of multiple means to improve contact tracing and social distancing now seems lost. The police are enforcing its use as an end in itself. Citizens are being stopped and punished for not carrying a phone or not downloading the app, even if they are wearing masks or practising social distancing.
There are many reasons for conflating means with ends. Political incentives have always existed to obfuscate, shift goal posts, and keep power in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. But the covid lockdown enables the political and bureaucratic classes with more authority without the usual push-back and protest seen in a democracy.
The 24x7 TV news cycle also enables this confusion. One can hardly expect the media to keep repeating the original goal of the lockdown as they chase ratings. Instead, outrage over each new problem caused by the lockdown is made prime time news. This is not to say that highlighting lockdown problems is not important. But, as a society, after 10 weeks of isolation and stress, Indians may have forgotten the original purpose of the lockdown.
Another reason is the way we react to stress. Citizens are trying to cope with the lockdown every day—because they cannot control government policy. And a rational strategy for individuals is to ensure that their actions and outcomes in the latest lockdown improve over their experiences of earlier ones. Indians are in survival mode.
But this behaviour is also being mimicked by the government, which has an incentive to ensure its political survival. However, it also has vast powers at its disposal. Unlike citizens, it decides if a lockdown is imposed or lifted, and controls whether state capacity is to be improved or ignored. If healthcare systems cannot be improved speedily, it can enforce another lockdown so that the number of cases and fatalities remain low, thus passing on the costs of its policy inaction to citizens.
What is the solution? As a society, we need to keep reminding the government of the original goal. The lockdown was intended to beef up India’s healthcare capacity. This has to start with taking stock. The government must collect, and make public, granular data on the total and available number of hospitals, doctors, nurses, hospital beds, intensive-care facilities, ventilators, labs, quarantine facilities, government workers, tests, and items of personal protective equipment. That information, combined with the number of cases, recoveries and fatalities—on which private efforts have reported excellent data—will help identify where and what needs to be scaled up in the country’s healthcare infrastructure.
The Union government should permit states to use the funds of Centrally-sponsored schemes to increase healthcare capacity and provide income support to the poor. The funding of healthcare capacity and relief is an important element; even after the restrictions lift, it will take time to return to pre-covid levels of economic activity.
Without clarifying the lockdown as a policy means and not its end, there is no way out of the covid health and economic crisis. As lockdown restrictions lift, and India attempts to reopen, there may be a sharp increase in covid cases. And without a significant improvement in healthcare infrastructure, there are very few policy options available in the future other than reinstating severe restrictions and lockdowns for a prolonged period.
Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US