Lockdown after May 3, 2020 is to be reviewed. It has brought untold hardships for everyone but especially for the marginalized sections. But for essentials, production has largely come to a halt, businesses are suffering losses – many of them may not survive. There is long run damage to the economy. So, the dilemma before the policy makers is, what to do after May 3rd?
Need for Realism in Planning
Policy has to be realistic and not based on wishful thinking that all will be well. The situation on the ground has to be the basis of a plan for the period after May 3rd. The disease COVID-19 which is the source of the pandemic is a new one and little is still known about it, making proper planning difficult. In spite of much research going on all over the world, its future course is not clear.
The disease is due to a virus which has mutated and jumped from animal to humans and is now transmitting from one person to another. If we are lucky, it may mutate again and become less virulent. It is already known that there are three different versions of the virus. But we cannot depend on this good luck since the virus can also become more deadly. It was speculated initially that heat would kill it but its continued spread in India in April and earlier spread in tropical climates does not give much hope. Chloroquine was thought to be a possible drug against the virus but studies are showing no impact – instead people are dying due to its side effects. So, as yet, there is no medicine or a vaccine against the disease.
Any plan has to take care of the short run but also prepare for any long term eventuality. We should not be caught unawares a second time. This time we got caught not knowing how to cope with the acute crisis we confront. There is the `Precautionary Principle’ which says assume that the worst can happen and plan for it. Survival is more important than any temporary gains that can be made in case luckily the intensity of the disease declines.
Why a Prolonged Lockdown?
A lockdown slows down the rapid spread of the disease and thereby prevents the medical system from getting overwhelmed. The Indian medical system is woefully inadequate with shortages of doctors, nurses, hospitals and equipment. The medical infrastructure in New York City, UK, Italy and Spain got overwhelmed quickly even though it is far better than the Indian system. It is clear that lockdown does not kill the virus but buys time to cope with the spread. It also buys time till the vaccine or the medicine against the virus can be found.
Given the deficiencies of the Indian medical system, widespread poverty and malnourishment, India needs a longish period of lockdown. Because of a lack of adequate testing facilities, we cannot even tell whether the disease is spreading or is controlled. If some districts are not reporting any cases we cannot be sure whether it is because of inadequate testing or because genuinely there are no cases.
A premature opening up without having adequate testing is a sure shot invitation for another spread and another lockdown which would be even more painful. The disease could spread rapidly and overwhelm the very poor health system and lead to social chaos.
There is an alternative view that due to lockdown, the poor have lost employment and incomes, and they will die of hunger. It is also said that if a large number of people get infected and there is `herd immunity’, as happens with other viruses, the population will develop resistance/ immunity to the virus. Further, it is argued that 80% people have a mild form of the disease and they get cured automatically. These are the asymptotic cases. Out of the remaining, 15% will have medium level symptoms and would need isolation. But 5% will require hospitalization and 2% would need ventilators and may die. This policy did not work in UK and they had to reverse policy in days since the cases shot up and their huge public health system got overloaded. They are on the way to having the largest number of deaths in Europe.
In India, the human cost of a misadventure will be enormous. If the disease spreads to only 60% of the population in the first round, it will mean 82 crore Indians. If 20% require isolation and hospitalization it will mean, 27 crore beds. If 5% need ventilators it will mean about 7 crore people and we have only about a lakh of them. So, most would die and their numbers may be upward of 5 crore in a year. Can society survive such a catastrophe? That is why we need to have an extended lockdown. It is a consequence of our indifference to our huge poverty and neglect of public health infrastructure since independence.
How To Make Lockdown Work?
Making lockdown work in India is a challenge. Poor do not have the resilience to deal with such a crisis. They live in poverty, earning and buying their necessities daily. They cannot stock up essentials, like the middle classes and the rich can. They also live in crowded places, at times 5 or more people to a room so that isolation is difficult.
The poor have to be supplied essentials where they live. Food godowns are overflowing so food can be distributed to the poor. If this is not done people will rush around and there may be food riots and lockdown would fail. There should be free tests – they cannot afford Rs.4,500 per test. They also need to be decongested from their slums. For this schools and halls can be used and Tents set up in open grounds. Those wanting to go back to their villages should be enabled to do so after testing.
Farmers face the problem of marketing of the crops and prices are falling. Reports are coming of fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields. The State should procure all the crops and use the excess to supply the urban pockets where there are shortages. Public transport buses and trucks that are lying idle can be used for the purpose. This extended procurement and enhanced public distribution at doorstep would solve the problem of both the farmers and the poor in urban areas and enable the success of lockdown.
Health infrastructure should be rapidly expanded. Production of equipment and protective gear needs to be ramped up in selected factories. Hotels and hostels can be used to create isolation wards. Medical and nursing students can be given para medic training and used to help in isolation wards and hospitals.
Resources Needed for Survival Package
During lockdown, production is less than 25% of what it was earlier, in January 2020. Thus, the rate of growth of the economy is -75%. If it recovers back to the pre pandemic level in 6 months (optimistic guess), the growth rate of the economy would be -17%. If the economy is in lockdown for two months and then it immediately recovers to the pre pandemic level, an impossibility, the rate of growth would be -9%. How the IMF is expecting the rate of growth to be 1.9% is beyond comprehension.
Such a big decline in the economy will lead to a sharp drop in government’ revenue. There will be no scope for tax cuts for businesses or giving them a stimulus. Prevention of business failures and collapse of the financial sector, which will be in big trouble, will be needed. Even funding essential expenditures like, interest payment and defence will be difficult. Cuts in salaries, etc. would be needed to fund a survival package to take care of the poor, the medical expenses and essential administration.
If half the population which has lost work and has become poor is to be given essentials for 6 months and if this costs half the World Bank extreme poverty line of $1.9, Rs.15 lakh crore would be required. Add to this expenditure on health infrastructure, etc. The budget would not have so much resources unless other expenditures are drastically curtailed.
India faces an unprecedented crisis and that requires out of box thinking. According to experts, without a lockdown, the situation will spin out of control. But then the economy will stall and the resource position will deteriorate. However life has to be protected so the lockdown has to be made to work and that requires that we spend only on the most essential – a survival package to protect life and businesses. After the pandemic a rethink on the way our society is can be undertaken but currently the focus has to be on survival.
Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of N4M Media.