A necessary leap of faith
Lifting the lockdown in India is a gradual planned manner is a calculated risk that must be undertaken if we are to avoid the disasters that will follow an indefinite extension
The media has lately reported that China has lifted the seventy-one days lockdown in Wuhan, the origin of COVID-19 and has also has permitted outbound travel of people. We can only take this news on its face value. Even as the lockdowns in several places in Europe and the US continues, infected cases shoot up in six digits and the number of deaths registered also increased, in spite of the best efforts of governments. Fortunately, the pandemic is more or less under control in India thanks largely to the timely actions by the government and exemplary participation of the Indian people in the war against the monster virus. Surely the tragedy will pass soon and the birds will sing tomorrow. However, we are all caught up in a predicament as to how to restore normalcy in society and also ensure the safety of millions. Though usually deaths owing to wars, earthquakes and floods outnumber those caused by COVID-19, the latter is of serious concern as little can be done at present to medically prevent or cure the disease, except lockdown and social distancing. Hence, the uncertainty of the future. Adding to worries, the lockdown has caused unexpected new problems far more severe than the virus, like future insecurity of food grains and supplies, neglected hospitals and health facilities, Coronavirus created unemployment, doomed services sector and collapsing financial markets. If the lockdown continues for another two months, it will not be an exaggeration to say that we may win the battle but lose the war.
States like Telangana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, UP and Delhi where the battle against COVID-19 is intense are in favour of extending the lockdown for some more time so that the disease is eliminated lock, stock and barrel. Other states where the impact is less severe are also suffering the fallout of the nationwide total lockdown and would be looking forward to an end for the same. As we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater, we may need to quickly come up with practical solutions to the crisis in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on one hand and also restore the economic activity on the other. Both have strong arguments extended in their favour.
To begin with, firstly we may focus on rural India where the impact of the virus is either nil or negligible. We may think of dispensing with or relax the lockdown in crucial sectors like agricultural and agro-industries. As monsoons will arrive in a couple of months and food production is of importance to feed millions in an already collapsing economy, lifting or phased relaxation in lockdowns will be an extremely prudent measure. This will protect the health of the rural economy, which includes horticulture crops, milk production, livestock and meat production.
Secondly, urban India is the host for industrial activity and services sector, we cannot afford to sedate it for another month, for obvious reasons. Lifting of the lockdown or conditional relaxation in places where COVID-19 is less severe is of grave importance. Schools and colleges, theatres and clubs can wait but industrial production units, medical and health entities, malls and markets and the banking sector cannot dream of such luxury of hibernation.
Thirdly, transportation and travel sector is the backbone of any economy and deactivating them beyond a limit will only mean catastrophe for the health of the economy. As reported in the media, loss of jobs in the travel sector are mounting in hundreds of thousands across the globe. Physical mobility of not only goods and services but also of human beings is essential for the smooth functioning of the economy. Trains (at least goods trains to start) must come back on tracks soon, along with flights in the air, and trucks and buses on roads even if it means living with the fear of COVID -19. A detailed protocol with effective restrictions can be imposed on the concerned operating companies and people in general while allowing the transport sector to resume its normal function.
Finally, though lifting the lockdown means a potential risk of quick transmission of infection, we mustn't forget the fact that unlike earlier times of pandemic crises like the plague, ebola, bird flu, today the world is much more well equipped to handle the clinical issues and the people too have become more educated in personal hygiene and health safety. The ongoing countrywide lockdown is a grand success barring sporadic aberrations.
From illiterate daily wage earners to educated sections, Indians have risen to the occasion beyond doubt, if masked faces in markets and streets seen during the relaxation hours of curfew are any evidence. Giving the devil his due, the Coronavirus for sure has triggered waves of fear for life in people and sensitised them towards guarding their health with proper preventive care.
Society in general today is well informed and a collective thought process is seen behind the mass participation and cooperation during the lockdown. Therefore, it will not be unjustifiable to repose faith in people, in the event of relaxing the lockdown, vis a vis their own personal conduct and in their resolve to stand by the government's campaign against COVID-19.
The war against COVID-19 is a relentless one with uncertain prospects for the time being. Nevertheless, the silver line is that the whole of humanity is united in the fight against the calamity as cooperation and combined efforts are seen yielding positive results. Prolonging the lockdown, though an unavoidable measure to contain the spread of the virus, has its own side effects in terms of robbing the livelihoods of people and crippling a healthy economy. So, it may not be a perfect solution to continue with lockdown for the entire country. We need a more pragmatic strategy in order to continue the fight against the virus and also ensure that our economic activity is back on track. A phased-out relaxation in lockdown, based on the assessment of the severity of the disease and in tune with the priorities of the economy is all that we need to work out now. Of course, advocating in favour of lifting of lockdown is easier said than done in a country with more than a billion people but we have no alternative except preparing ourselves for calculated risk and being ready with backup plans should things go awry.
The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are strictly personal