Calibration Is What India's COVID-19 Strategy Needs

At least two important lessons have been revealed – the necessity of public healthcare and the damage we have been doing to the environment.

Even though there has been widespread approval in several quarters, within and outside of India, of the manner in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has handled the coronavirus crisis, there are some serious implications which need to be considered with responsibility and circumspection. When Modi declared the lockdown on the evening of March 24, he certainly did not reveal any possible fear of the large mass of India’s migrant labourers wanting to return home.

If he had no inkling of it, then it must be a big blot on his economic and social understanding of ground realities. It also raises a big question mark on the abilities of his trusted advisers and his entire intelligence system. And if he knew it coming and chose not to reveal it, then it must be one of the most serious acts of unpardonable callousness in modern times.

One should not have to overemphasise that farming has to go on, fruits and vegetables have to be produced and distributed, trains and buses have to run, children have to go to schools and colleges, the plumber has to do his daily work and get his day’s wages, and so on. The vast majority of the country’s workers are in the unorganised sector. They typically depend on the day’s earnings to buy their ration for the following day. For how many days can they sustain themselves if the lockdown is to continue?

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But now that the closure till May 3 is a done deed, one must try to understand its possible fallouts with the greatest of care and empathy. One has to think about this issue as a responsible citizen, with one’s focus on being constructive and positive, and without any narrow partisan considerations.

A report by the International Labour Organisation has stated that about 40 crore workers in India’s informal sector are at risk of falling deeper into poverty as they are suddenly facing drastic layoffs, and reductions in wages and working hours. Without any savings or bank balances to fall back upon, these individuals, many of them poor migrants, are sure to confront hunger and destitution. It is true that several state governments, gurudwaras, temples and sundry NGOs have come forward to arrange meals and other support for these vulnerable sections, but surely this is way below the unprecedented scale of effort that is called for.

On the other side is the looming threat of the possible spread of the deadly virus. With each passing day, the numbers are mounting. Yet, one must understand that in relative terms the damage so far in India has been minimal. India has about 17.7% of the world population. As per latest figures, the number of COVID-19 deaths in India is well under 1% – in fact at around 0.3% – of the world total. In the recording of cases, India is at around 0.6% – again, well less than 1% – of the world total. This, however, must not make us unduly complacent, and we have to watch the next two to three weeks with utmost care.

Each life is precious and our entire system has to totally commit itself to preventing each COVID-19-related death. It is also true that the best way to prevent deaths is to subject oneself to social and physical distancing. But the key issue is, whether this necessarily makes it incumbent upon us to subject ourselves to the kind of severe lockdown we have gone in for.

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The burden of our argument should be clear by now. We are for an approach that should have eschewed the extremes of a total lockdown on the one hand, and an immediate return to business as usual on the other. What one is saying is that there is always a strong case for adopting a calibrated approach. Even within the short span of a bit more than three weeks, we have seen some rather unique success stories. There is the example from Bhilwara, where, by identifying clusters, organising daily disinfection and commandeering hotels to expand quarantine facilities, significantly positive results have been garnered. Such instances could surely be replicated, with suitable local variations. It would certainly be inadvisable to adopt a one track strategy for this vast and diverse subcontinent.

Two lessons immediately come to mind. The hospitals that are coming forward to take care of the crisis, with the testing, treating and the provisioning of hospital beds, are largely from the already overworked public health system.  For all their five star comforts and savvily touted world-class medical facilities, the entire lot of top-end private hospitals have painted a woefully poor account of themselves. This goes to show that in this hour of national emergency, it is ultimately the public-funded systems, which, despite their serious resource crunch, ultimately respond positively to a crisis.

The second has to do with the brief, but extraordinary, experience of the lockdown that the country has already gone through so far. The air is cleaner, coliform content in the Ganges has gone down, and residents of Delhi can once again see stars in the evening sky after long years! The urgency of fast track economic growth at any cost has for long been the clarion call of virtually all self respecting economists the world over. But we would do well to recall that there have been some major contrarian voices too.

Among the greatest of classical economists, John Stuart Mill, in his Principles of Political Economy, 1848, had warned of the devastation that industrialisation was causing to the environment. Mill had dared to welcome a stationary state, where there would be no further growth of population, but thanks to technological innovations, the common man would be assured of a comfortable existence, and where mankind would turn its attention to the serious and meaningful matters of liberty and justice.

Pulin B. Nayak was Professor of Economics at the Delhi School of Economics.