Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh speaking to a television news channel the other day said that he had been told by medical experts that the corona pandemic will last till at least September. Others have also expressed such misgivings. In fact, there are authoritative voices in the medical community both at home and abroad indicating that the global contagion would remain a threat well into 2021.
In other words, despite the lockdown in India and a number of countries there is no knowing definitely when humankind will be rid of this latest scourge of coronavirus. It is a distressing situation. But it is reasonable to ask whether the lockdown is sustainable without inflicting untold human misery and sinking the economy.
Let us not delude ourselves. The effort to open up the economy with chains tied around all around, it will not serve the purpose and besides entail unbearable additional costs. We are aware the authorities are desperately evolving policy to meet the contingent situation, but as the effort showed on the first day of the partial relaxation for some sectors on Monday it is unlikely to meet much success.
Some industries would rather remain shut than open under new conditions which are both unworkable and prohibitively costly to implement. Keeping workers at a safe distance while at work, housing them in dormitories nearby and testing them daily for the coronavirus are cumbersome steps which any industry will baulk at implementing, especially if its distributor networks still remain disrupted due to the lockdown. If there are some industries which can risk opening without jeopardising human health, they should be allowed to, but it can only be on a case-by-case basis.
Movement of trucks nationwide to carry essential and non-essential goods has been permitted, but without dhabas on the way to service the drivers and cleaners, truck crews cannot be very enthusiastic. Again, how does one ensure that the dhaba-owners and staff are not themselves infected and pass on the virus to their patrons? This is only one small example of the hazards of a partial reopening. Maybe, as some people are beginning to argue, after an expert assessment about the peaking of the corona curve and signs of its flattening, the authorities can seriously consider full opening. Closure of all educational institutions till mid-July of course is a given.
Simultaneously with contact tracing, testing and isolating of the infected, the resumption of normal activity must go on. We do not have to follow the lead of the US where the State Governors and the President are in open conflict, with Trump encouraging his supporters to defy the lockdown and demand an early start of the economy. Yet, we do not have to wait for the hungry and the poor masses to feel impelled to defy the restrictions before we can allow them to resume work. The longer the lockdown lasts, the more the livelihoods concerns of the millions of daily workers will come to the fore, forcing them to risk defiance rather than suffer hunger and deprivation.
Despite the provision of free rations, despite the deposit of Rs 500 in crores of Jan Dhan accounts, despite even free food camps, the army of daily wagers will not wait indefinitely before wanting to return to work. We are not making a case for haphazard reopening.
No. We are merely reminding the rulers not to allow the fight against the coronavirus to overwhelm the livelihood concerns of tens of millions.
Besides, the rulers cannot countenance an empty treasury should the lockdown continue beyond the current extended period till May 3. The precipitate dip in the GST collections for the current month ought to serve as a grim reminder that the lockdown has become economically disastrous. This cannot go on any longer without pushing the GDP into the negative territory.
Maybe a daytime single shift for industry and commerce with minimum conditions can be allowed from May 4th and depending on the experience full normalcy can be restored after a couple of weeks. India is too big and too poor to remain shut indefinitely. This is not Trumpian logic. It is an acknowledgement of our grim reality. America can still afford a long shutdown. We cannot.