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Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Opinion | An alternative safety regime for India after we lift the lockdown

We may soon need selective measures that are almost as effective against covid but impose lower social and economic costs

Before discussing the Indian lockdown, it is useful to recall the definition of a “lockdown". Broadly, it could mean either the confinement of prisoners to their cells, typically in order to regain control during a riot, or a state of human isolation or restricted access instituted as a security measure. The security measures instituted in India are meant to protect us against a viral threat. This threat is compounded by irresponsible foreign tourists and citizens who refuse to take the risk of person-to-person transmission seriously enough, and do not take precautionary measures such as home quarantining themselves.

The spread of covid-19 has resulted in countries deciding to announce “lockdowns" to stop or at least slow the mass spread of the disease. The precise nature of the shutdown is not identical in every country, though. India has announced a temporary countrywide lockdown, with only “essential commodities/services" and their supply chains exempt. This is based on the advice of the medical establishment, which is reported to believe that this it is the best or only way to “flatten the curve" of transmission, given that we are a relatively poor country with limited health infrastructure compared to rich countries.

There is no denying the need to flatten the curve—the preservation of life should always be the top priority during a pandemic. And though the government has stated that the lockdown won’t be extended, we must consider whether such a shutdown is the most efficient mechanism for slowing the spread of the virus. The economic and consequent social costs of a lockdown must be weighed against its benefits. Further, the choice is not merely between a lockdown and no lockdown. There are many possible measures in-between the two. A comprehensive cost-benefit evaluation would be needed for undertaking such complex decisions. Here, we estimate the economic costs of the Indian lockdown and propose an alternative set of measures that may be only a little less effective but also much less costly in economic and social terms.

We consider three possibilities. In the first, the lockdown is lifted as per schedule on 15 April. In the second scenario, it is extended to 30 April, and in the third, it remains in place till 31 May. We estimate the loss of gross domestic product at 2.8%, 5% and 9%, respectively, in these three scenarios. Every subsequent month of the lockdown will have a higher loss associated with it. This is because of the complex production linkages that exist among industries—which will have an impact on a broader economic recovery. As essentials are exempt, there would be limited impact on essential services. Contact services such as travel, tourism, etc., will get significantly affected. The rest of the economy too will witness a substantial loss of economic activity due to the lockdown.

Given those costs, we must consider alternatives for flattening the curve while resuming economic activity. An option we could go for consists of the following elements. One, mandate compulsory wearing of masks by all workers (including household workers) and all individuals outside their homes. Two, impose a nationwide ban on the assembly of more than five people in any public place, applicable to religious gatherings as well, till 30 June. Three, continue the ban or limits on international travel by air, sea or road for the next couple of weeks. Four, open up public transport by road, rail and air gradually for workers, employees and managers, with special precautions such as testing (thermal, sense of smell) at entry points to identify suspected cases, compulsory masks, and social distancing (empty seats between passengers). Five, keep in place the restrictions on hotels, restaurants, malls and retail markets for some more time before they are relaxed gradually; all licensing restrictions and fees for home delivery can be suspended for the duration of these strictures. This will have to be accompanied by careful checks of delivery staff. Six, enforce home quarantines for suspected cases and those with mild symptoms strictly. These should be monitored either through mobile apps supported by random administrative checks to ensure an infected person does not leave home without a mobile, or through electronic monitors worn on the wrist or ankles. The duration of such quarantines could be increased progressively to discourage repeat violations. Seven, continue a partial lockdown or curfews in seriously affected districts beyond 15 April.

A lockdown also has social costs which have not been accounted for at all here. Therefore, we must take stringent measures and all of us must practise socio-spatial distancing to ensure that the curve is indeed flattened convincingly enough for all restrictions to finally be removed. An early announcement to shift to the alternative we propose could help ensure the adequate production and distribution of masks, thermal scanners, test kits, ventilators and protective gear for health workers. India has done well so far in its fight against covid-19. However, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, it will indeed be a long fight.

Arvind Virmani & Karan Bhasin are, respectively, chairman, Foundation For Economic Growth and Welfare, and a Delhi-based researcher

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