REAL CHALLENGE WILL BEGIN AFTER LOCKDOWN EXIT
World leaders, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, have praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his timely decision to enforce a national lockdown to fight the Covid pandemic. Europe and the US have had to pay dearly for their failure to act at the right time.
It was rather easy for Modi to declare the lockdown. It came almost as a spur of the moment decision, and the onus was largely on the Indian public, who obliged the prime minister with remarkable fortitude. And Modi has repeatedly acknowledged this when he attributed the success of the lockdown to the ‘130 crore Indians’.
But unfortunately, exiting the lockdown is a much more difficult process than entering it. There are conflicting pulls that make a decision most difficult. There are already signs of confusion rather than clarity. Already the lockdown has been extended once and it is obvious that the prevailing situation does not offer the freedom to do that for another time, although there have been demands from various quarters that there is no option but to extend.
Nations all over the world are also struggling with the decision. In a move that has come to stay as typical of his administration President Donald Trump has decided that he is going to lift all restrictions, come hell or high water. For leaders like Trump, for whom ignorance is bliss, there are no dilemmas. Last week he surprised everyone by asking Americans to injest common disinfectant as a cure or means of resistance to Covid. But most European nations, still deep in the lockdown, are debating ways to return to the normal European life.
Modi’s situation has been described as similar to Abhimanyu in Chakravyuh, when the master marksman knew how to enter the complex military formation, but did not know how to get out. Modi apparently took the lockdown decision on his own, but is now engaged in endless rounds of consultations with all kinds of people, including state chief minsters, on what to do next.
While announcing the lockdown, he had stressed the importance of saving lives (‘jaanhai to jahanhai’) but as the lockdown deepened with its attendant problems he has now changed the slogan to lives as well as livelihood (janbhi, jahanbhi). It has become clear that without livelihood, life is not worth living for the majority of Indians.
For this to happen, there is need for a credible, system-wide, stabilisation package to be executed in a timely fashion so it can influence the pace of recovery and help avoid severe damage to livelihoods, the economy, the financial sector, and society. This task has unfortunately been given to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman with predictable results.
The Covid challenge has only begun for India, irrespective of the fact that it has done relatively well so far by containing the spread of the virus. But there is no guarantee of continued success. With the prospects of lockdown being lifted becoming nearer, the authorities will have an impossible task to control the situation.
Millions of migrant workers in urban centres are getting restive as they are desperate to get back to their villages. The government has more or less decided that they can no longer be asked to ‘stay wherever they are’ as part of the national lockdown. As and when they return, which promises to be sooner than later, a large number would be carrying with them the Covid virus. One can very well imagine the situation in rural India, with nearly no infrastructure for testing and treatment of the deadly virus.
We have seen how difficult it has been in places like Mumbai’s Dharavi to enforce any kind of social distancing and other protocols relating to fighting coronavirus. Law enforcement has simply failed to cope with the problem. There are thousands of Dharavis waiting to unleash all across the country and the real success will come when are able to handle that phase of the outbreak.
A McKinsey report unravels the enormity of the problem. It feels that India’s ultimate success in the fight against Covid will depend on the availability of the crucial testing capabilities that will be required to get a better handle on the spread of the virus, granular data and technology to track and trace infections, and the build-up of healthcare facilities to treat patients.
In parallel, there will be need to put in place protection protocols, co-created with industry and designed for different settings as rural markets, construction sites, factories, BPO companies, urban transit, and rural–urban labour movement.
As an example, it suggests that industrial areas could be ring-fenced and made safe, with local dormitories set up for the labour force and minimal, controlled movement in and out of the site allowed. There could be on-site testing at factories and staggered shifts for workers.
A geographic lens could be overlaid to determine how quickly the lockdown could be lifted when new protection protocols are in place. Red, yellow, and green zones could be earmarked based on unambiguous criteria, with clear rules for economic activity, entry, and exit. The classification of areas could be updated frequently as the situation evolves. The definition of a ‘zone’ would need to be granular (such as by ward, colony, and building cluster) to allow as much economic activity as is safely possible while targeting infection as accurately as possible.