In the Fight Against the Novel Coronavirus, a Lockdown Can Only Be a Strategic Pause

If we don’t find bold solutions during this pause quickly, we may discover that social structures can start breaking down pretty soon.

In 1984, Charles Perrow, a Yale sociologist, postulated the theory of ‘Normal Accidents’, stating that multiple and unexpected failures are built into a society’s complex and tight coupling. This means that highly interdependent systems start collapsing in a domino effect if just one element is affected.

Consider the downpour on July 26, 2005, which flooded Mumbai for two days and killed over a thousand people. But that’s not all that the cloudburst did.

Schools, colleges and banks had to be closed for two days after that. Disruption to connectivity with the central servers prevented operation of banks and ATMs — not just in Mumbai, but in several parts of the country. Mumbai airport shut down for 30 hours, cancelling or delaying 700 flights, causing a domino effect across India and even the world. The Mumbai-Pune expressway was shut for the first time in its history, severing a primary arterial link. Thousands of travellers were stranded and missed their onward connections by train and air. Over 5 million phones and 2 million landlines were non-operational for several hours and trade in many brokerage houses was disrupted. Several plans, projects and livelihoods were damaged, some beyond repair.

That is the effect of ‘tight coupling’.

When major threats confront societies, they go into three modes — freeze, fight or flight. This is primal hard wiring, and sensibly so. Today, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, governments across the world are going into a lockdown or freeze mode. There are three reasons for this. First, to slow the exponential spread of the coronavirus. Second, to prepare for the proliferation of cases which is just over the horizon.  And lastly ,to evaluate trade-offs between different options.

The lockdown is a very limited pause. Because like the holding pattern of an aircraft, lockdowns can be sustained only for a short time, before leading to a crash. And in an unequal society like India’s, the holding capacity ranges from long to non-existent. Consider the government’s direction of a complete lockdown — except essential services. The latter are hospitals, food supply and sale, medicines and government establishments, which will run at lower capacities. Let’s see how this pans out as the days pass.

Hospitals are staffed by doctors, nurses, housekeeping, cleaning staff and security. Hospitals also need supplies of medicines, consumables and effluent disposal daily. Most hospitals also have radioactive, toxic material which needs specialised removal every day. While some doctors may have their transportation, most nurses and ancillary staff will need transport to their homes. If the trains don’t run, dedicated transport will be needed. Which in turn needs drivers and fuel stations and entities who sustain them.

Similarly, those manning supply chains of perishable products will need sustenance. Fresh produce like milk, fruits and vegetables arrive into most metros through a complex ‘just in time’ supply chain. If farmers are unable to go to farms to harvest the produce, if workers are unable to load it onto trucks, if trucks are not able to drive it into cities, if  smaller vendors are prevented from accessing wholesale markets, if those vendors can’t transport what they buy to retail shops in residential neighbourhoods — then existing stocks of essentials will dry up within days.

Our telecommunications networks need a veritable army of engineers and technicians 24/7 to keep them running. These range from people who continually fix network components, down to those who fuel generators, powering those towers and nodes. The same is true for the electrical, water, and cooking gas grid. Who will staff them if the lockdown stretches?

While the salaried class may be relatively better off, what happens to those who earn their living daily? Taxis, autos, cycle rickshaws, daily wage labourers, tradesmen, salesmen, delivery personnel, coolies in stations, casual labour in manufacturing plants, workers in malls, roadside vendors who feed office goers — the chain of dependency on daily cash flow is endless and can be stretched only a little before collapsing.

Economic packages announced by the government will take time to trickle down. And even if the cash reaches the bottom of the pyramid, what will they buy if there is nothing in the shops?

Modern technologically driven societies are a complex machine where every cog is connected to the overall movement of the superstructure. The cogs can be paused for a minimal time before that structure loses its integrity. Working, studying from home or getting supplies delivered to the doorstep is a luxury that a minuscule percentage of our country has. They just seem like a lot because we are in an echo chamber which precludes the voices of the unprivileged. If we don’t find bold solutions during this pause quickly, we may discover that social structures can start breaking down pretty soon.

Raghu Raman is founding CEO of NATGRID, and former President, Risk & Security, Reliance Industries