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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Unlocking India is a far bigger challenge than staying locked

In less than a week from now, India’s government will have to decide on ending the countrywide lockdown that’s intended to slow down the spread of covid-19 infections across the country’s population. Unfortunately, it may not have all the data needed to take a well-informed decision. Whatever is decided, there will be negative consequences, either on the health front or on the economic front, or both. There is no win-win solution available.

Most doctors appearing on television channels are saying that by 12-13 April we may get better data on whether the spread of infections is manageable, which implies that the government will barely have a day to decide. It also means that the easier decision to take would be to extend the lockdown for another week or two.

There are two better alternatives: one is to restrict the lockdown to covid hotspots and ease it in lower-risk districts. The other is to relax the lockdown in phases, easing it sector by sector and geography by geography over an extended period of time that may last till the end of May or early June.

The critical risk trade-off is between health and economics. With every additional week, the health risks may come under better control, but at the cost of the economy. Getting the economy to resume, on the other hand, adds to the risk of a faster spread of the pandemic, since economic activity will, by definition, force people to come out of their homes and deal with other people, use public transport and gather in public spaces.

The rabi harvest is due this month, and a bumper crop is expected. If we assume that some of the poorest people in India depend on the farm sector for livelihoods, we cannot wait for the lockdown to end before the harvest is brought to mandis, moved to granaries, and sold to consumers. This means that agriculture, agro-industry and logistics needed to move out of the lockdown as of yesterday. Once agriculture is free to function, manufacturing too will need an exit strategy, as basic essentials like fast-moving consumer goods will likely see a spike in demand. At some point, a sector-by-sector approach will cease to have meaning, for all products have supply chains that include other industries which may not qualify as “essential" under the official definition. Example: packaging. And can products move without services? Can trucks, say, move without garages to service them? And how long can we continue without household or personal services like electricians, plumbers or barbers?

The logical way to decide which sectors to phase out of the lockdown would be to distinguish between those that can work with limited physical proximity and those that need social contact. Two other aspects relate to technology and corporate capabilities. Jobs that can be done remotely can easily resume; companies that can provide safe transport and protection against infection at their workplaces ideally ought to be allowed to resume work faster than those that cannot. Private transport can be allowed free passage earlier than public transport.

When public transport resumes, we cannot allow buses and trains to be packed tightly with people. This means we need more public wardens and railway police to restrict the entry of commuters. It also implies that states must put more buses on the road in the short run by ordering or commandeering more of them. This would also serve as an indirect economic stimulus.

But before we slowly expand economic activity and people movement, the first and biggest investment to make is in mass physical protection products. This means providing for everyone basic cotton masks that can be washed and sterilized at home. Also, hand sanitizers. In a water-scarce environment, it is hardly great advice to tell people to wash their hands regularly.

Following this chain of reasoning, at the macroeconomic level, it would make sense to use the covid threat to temporarily shift money intended for infrastructure like roads and railways to healthcare, including the expansion of basic healthcare facilities in semi-urban and rural areas. Doctors from the ayurveda and unani streams should also be roped in to help manage the pandemic.

The focus on tackling the covid-19 challenge cannot be seen in isolation. Reason: India has a large demand for hospitals and healthcare even without covid-19, and reducing pandemic-related infections and deaths might result in other kinds of illnesses and deaths being left unattended or given poor care. Non-covid deaths and illnesses will go under the radar, since no one is counting them. The poor will pay the highest price for this failure.

India will have to front-load investments in health to make up for decades of underinvestment. The focus must be on empowering people to protect themselves, rather than just preventing the spread of infections by keeping them endlessly at home or in the hope that the disease will vanish merely by physical distancing. It may take up to a year to find an effective vaccine or cure for covid-19; neither our healthcare system nor our economy can wait that long. We have to invest more in expanding healthcare capabilities and getting the economy up to speed. It is not an either-or situation.

R. Jagannathan is editorial director, ‘Swarajya’ magazine

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