Together, we stand
A comprehensive response to the ongoing pandemic can only be formulated by cooperation from all sectors of Indian society in aiding government efforts
The outbreak of the pandemic COVID-19 has led to not only the lockdown of cities and towns but also to the closure of regular economic activity i.e., the production of goods and services across the world. The global economy's growth could be at its slowest rate since 2009, according to OECD estimates. It may further plummet to just 2.4 this year from 2.9 per cent in November last year and a "longer lasting and more intensive" outbreak can even reduce the growth to half i.e., 1.5 per cent as factories would come to a grinding halt and production to a standstill. Events forecast their shadows. Oil has further slumped to its lowest price since June 2001 even as the tussle between OPEC nations and Russia has already lowered the oil prices. The 'safe haven' investment – gold is also witnessing a fall in prices from the beginning of March. The point of origination for COVID-19, China has registered a fall of 13.5 per cent in its industrial production meaning layoffs, wage cuts or even lockouts that affect purchasing power and indefinite fall in demand.
The virus spreading like an inexorable wildfire has already impacted the economy of many countries. For instance, as BBC reports, Hotel and Restaurant bookings have fallen to 82 per cent in the UK in February this year in comparison to last year while in Germany the percentage is 90. The airlines business seems to be the worst victim as the US travel ban on EU and UK ban on Chinese travellers has caused a chain reaction across the world with 100 other countries imposing travel restrictions. In short, the travel and hospitality sector, a key income-generating sector of the world economy is paralysed beyond doubt. It is estimated that up to 48,200 flights with 10.2 million seats could be affected owing to the spread of the virus. Now that we live in a global village, it is impractical to emulate an ostrich burying its head in the sand.
The advent of an apocalyptic economic depression in the near future is the writing on the wall which could be more disastrous than the pandemic itself. The New York stock market has crashed by 38 per cent in just 18 days which never occurred even during the great depression of 1930 or even during the economic meltdown of 2008. Nikkei with minus 28.7 per cent, Dow Jones with minus 31.1 per cent and FTSC 100 with minus 34.1 per cent, all indicate a sudden collapse of the money market. Sensing the impending catastrophe, many central banks across the world have already begun slashing down interest rates, hoping to induce demand.
The message is irrefutable. It's not only important to quarantine or protect people from COVID-19 but it's also equally important to save and sustain the economy. Firstly, notwithstanding the timely publicity with advisories to protect people, what we need immediately is to come up with proper economic packages to sustain the crippling growth rates in the short run and to make sure that soon, the economy would limp back steadily to normalcy. The packages should primarily focus on the millions of workers and migrant labourers in the unorganised sector who would soon face starvation should the pandemic continue unabated as urban areas are worst hit. Detailed arrangements to feed the urban workers through highly subsidised PDS is a priority. The Chhattisgarh Government recently announced free ration for the poor for the next two months, a good beginning on the road to salvage the devastation.
Secondly and fortunately, the virus has not affected the countryside at least for now which means we can insulate and sustain the rural economy i.e., agriculture, livestock, fish, goats, poultry and horticultural crops, the lifeline of rural India. The present rabi harvesting must go unhampered and the future monsoon Kharif operations need to be ensured foolproof. It means strengthening the rural credit structure, ensuring the supply chain of seeds and fertilisers, pesticides and farm machinery. The rural economy plays a pivotal role in supporting the national economy.
Thirdly, the MSMEs are a major contributor to the GDP and also to the supply of consumer goods and the lockdowns will naturally hit their productivity. The economic packages need to incorporate protective measure such as liberal advances with DRIs, if possible and subsidies in power, water, etc. The service sector contributes the highest share to the GDP and it is at a crossroads today with industries like travel, hospitality, software, etc., almost closing down. Civic unrest is not far away if downsizing the strength of employees becomes inevitable. The package needs to allay the real fears of the concerned stakeholders to assure them of safe and sustainable employment post-pandemic.
Fourthly, it is time for increased philanthropic initiatives by the ultra-wealthy of the nation who had made a fortune off the blood and sweat of common men. As the resources at the disposal of the government are limited, the economic package should include, by hook or crook, the private initiative. The corporate sector can liberally contribute through provision of free check-ups, furnishing government hospitals with beds, equipment and doctors to control the virus and free food, shelter and clothing for the needy. In the short run, they can at least refrain from CBR and CTC calculations and think of standing by their employees in these difficult times. Celebrities and sporting personalities can do more than giving advisories on screen. Likewise, godmen, temple trusts, waqf boards and missionary organisations, etc., should also come out openly and contribute their best liberally.
This pandemic has driven home the fact that only science and scientists can truly help in such a crisis. People have begun realising the fact. Similarly, another truth that COVID -19 has revealed is that 'united we stand and divided we fall'. The Indian people have shown adherence to this wisdom by making the 'Janata Curfew' a success. The government is indeed omnipresent but it is also true that it is not omnipotent. The cooperation of the people is the backbone for governance, especially in times of crisis. Transgressing meaningless boundaries of caste, creed, faith or even politics, people must join hands to stand against the onslaught of COVID-19 and rebuild the economy.
The writer is a former Additional Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are strictly personal