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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

A four-point agenda beyond the lockdown

  • We need top-notch medical preparedness, revised rules on social distancing, a stimulus for the economy and protections for the poor

The world over, science is telling us that the peak of the covid-19 pandemic will occur over a 10 day to a two-three month period. Most countries are in different phases of a lockdown. Some have just begun. In others, the lockdown is well under way and they are considering extending the lockdown. And China is trying to move out. Soon, all countries will need to develop a strategy to exit their lockdowns; the discourse on this has already begun. A consensus is emerging in India that the exit will need to be gradual, with attention to stage-by-stage relaxations. The recommendations by an expert committee on an exit strategy for Kerala have been circulated. At the highest level, an exit strategy would need to have four elements:

One, we have to maintain high preparedness of the healthcare system over the medium term. This is necessary because we don’t yet have a vaccine for covid-19 and there are many unknowns. For example, we don’t know whether and when there might be a spike again and whether re-infection can occur in previously infected people. Measures of health preparedness need to be informed by a science-based and data driven approach. Equally, it is essential to support and empower the public health authorities at the state and local levels.

Two, we must maintain a reasonable form of social distancing and prevent large gatherings for a significant period of time. This will help prevent a spike in infections. Announcing norms and “rules of the game" for businesses, educational institutions, traffic, public transport and social/religious gatherings for a 6 month period is vital, so that the system can plan and make the necessary adjustments. The “rules" will need to clarify what is permitted and what is not, what kind of measures are being taken to stagger attendance and gatherings of people. Some sectors (sports, education, tourism, cinema, and F&B to name just a few) are much more significantly impacted, and clarity and predictability on social distancing measures here will be particularly useful. Some practices like wearing masks when outside, and use of hand sanitizers, will have to become the new normal.

Three, we must stimulate economic activity. The economy has taken a big hit. The road to recovery is likely to be a long one. Continued need for social distancing will also impact the speed at which the economy can pick up. Stimulating it would have two components. First, restoring supply chains for essential products and services. And beyond that, identifying a couple of most impactful areas/sectors to focus on. Hard choices will have to be made on the latter. Putting together a diverse team of epidemiologists, economists, business leaders and civil society leaders to work with the government could lead to better informed outcomes. The government has announced monetary and fiscal policy measures; more atypical and unconventional solutions will be needed.

Four, we need to build resilience among the most vulnerable. The pandemic has brought into focus the interconnectedness of humanity and the fact that everyone needs to care about and actively support the most vulnerable sections—daily wage earners, senior citizens, and migrant populations. A recent survey by the NGO Jan Sahas shows that over 40% of daily wage migrant workers mentioned that they had no ration left even for the day, let alone for the duration of the lockdown. Small businesses too will need considerable handholding. A range of solutions will be needed: direct benefit transfers, other income support measures, easier access to credit, concessional funding, guarantee programmes, etc.

In each of the four areas, detailed measures will need to be developed, and will require sustained and empathetic communication by governments, businesses and community leaders. The tension between extended lockdown and economic impact means that difficult trade-offs will be made. What is clear is that life will not return to normal in a jiffy. Navigating the next 12-18 months will take leadership, collaboration, and community spirit. In the last few weeks we have seen we have seen shining examples of these, as Indians have come together to fight this crisis.

Above all, the more privileged amongst us need to be prepared to give up a little, make sacrifices and allow the attention to be on those who need it most. India has provided incredible opportunities to its more privileged millions for the last three decades. Let the next two years be mainly about those who are at the greatest risk of being pushed further behind.

Roopa Kudva is managing director, Omidyar Network India.

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