Covid-19 isa jolt to the way we work and live. The response, what the IMF has called “TheGreat Lockdown”, was a different kind of jolt. Now, the lifting of the lockdownwill be a different kind of jolt and return to normalcy won’t be seamless. Aswe near the end of Lockdown 2.0, the question is about the nature of Lockdown3.0. The government is unlikely to lift the lockdown across the nation in onego. More significantly, our commercialcentres and some key urban cities, notably the financial centre of Mumbai, areunlikely to have any relaxation so that the partial restoration of the supplychain will pose problems of its own kind.
Considerthat of the 100 most populated urban wards in India, 43 are located inMaharashtra; Greater Mumbai alone accounts for 41 of these. In Gujarat,Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara have 20, 11, and 10 such wards respectively, contributinga total of 41 of these. The rest of the country accounts for just 16 mostpopulated urban wards. The denser the area, the higher the affected cases isthe simple equation. Hence, Maharashtra and Gujarat will have to work out theirstrategies on a completely different plane as compared to the rest of thecountry, both presently as well as in the post-lockdown context.
In effect,going by the figures that we have as regards the rate at which cases are beingdetected, treated, and the number of people succumbing to the disease indifferent parts of the country, it appears as though each State has to work outits own unique plan post this second phase of lockdown that is expected to endon 3rd of May. Also, the strategies have to be different for differentgeographic locations even in the same State as the urban conglomerates haveentirely different density and settlement patterns as compared to the ruralareas.
Just to givean example, the handling of migrant labour will necessarily have to be differentin States that receive the so-called guest workers. Kerala has around 31 lakhsof them; other States have much less. But there have been no issues in Keralain handling the migrant labour, whereas Mumbai and places in Gujarat havewitnessed violent scenes. Kerala already had plans on hand while the otherState governments have been found wanting. The point is, Central advisories ina blanket manner have little meaning. Micro level planning at each State levelas regards various aspects has to be dealt with at that particular State level.We will need administrative ingenuity in different ways shown in thepost-lockdown situation.
We are inthis kind of a situation because of mistakes, grave ones, made right from thebeginning in delaying the suspension of international flights and in planningfor the lockdown. Whatever the ostensible reasons, (whether hosting PresidentTrump, end-February, and the toppling of the Madhya Pradesh Congressgovernment, end March, were the motives or not), the right time to act wasaround the last week of January not the last week of March!
Testing, themost minimum, was started at the international airports of India quite late;around the second week of March. But then only thermal screening wasintroduced. All those who did not show any symptoms of fever were let go andthose who had fever, some of which could have been unconnected with thecoronavirus, that is, the false positives, were expectedly,isolated/quarantined. One cannot quarrel with that. On the other hand, a multitudewere let go since they were asymptomatic. That is where the big mistakehappened – those who went through the “green channel”, could have beencarriers, and as it was realised later, they in fact were. These negativeresults through thermal screening were undoubtedly false negatives. The Statewoke up tardily and started searching and chasing these false negatives, fromthe lists of airline passengers, quite late. Meanwhile, it is not just likely,but for sure these false negatives have infected those they came in contactwith. And those contacts have infected others in an ever-widening circle. Thathas been a colossal, and unforgivable, failure on the part of decision-makersin India. Currently, there are ongoing desperate measures to undo these lapses;but the cases they have to deal with have expanded tremendously due to theearlier lapses.
Also, thesuddenness of the lockdown versus a plan to watch carefully, pre-announce stepsand stop anxieties would have been a better way to rollout a complete stoppageof all economic activity. That wouldhave ensured that the problem of migrant workers would have been minimised. Thelesson we must draw form this is that sudden jolts are never good for people,administrators and the economy. Thus, the lifting of the lockdown, or itscontinuation in part where it is deemed necessary to stop the spread ofCovid-19, should be transparently discussed and announced well in advance. Thiswill keep people ready, administrators prepared and will allow for anadjustment with minimum anxiety and stress. It can help contain furtherdisruptions.
We also needto be mindful of the terminology. “Social distancing” as a term hashistorically been used in India in the context of caste and the associatedaspects of discrimination and untouchability. An appropriate and meaningfulphrase is “physical distancing” which does convey that distance has to bemaintained in the physical sense between those who interact.
We might consider that distancing is here to stay and will also likely change the way we work, travel and consume. These are huge behavioural changes that will probably impact the way we return to business and will influence the contours of our post-Covid growth. Many existing models will die and new ones are being written even as the epidemic chips away at our existing globalised world order.
(Dr MA Kalam is Dean — Administration and Regulatory Affairs, and Professor of Anthropology, Krea University. Views are personal)
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