COVID-19 is a jolt to the way we work and live. The response, what the IMF has called “The Great Lockdown”, was a different kind of jolt. Now, the lifting of the lockdown will be another, and return to normalcy won’t be seamless. As we near the end of Lockdown 2.0, the question is about the nature of Lockdown 3.0. The government is unlikely to lift it across the nation in one go. More significantly, our commercial centres and some key urban cities, notably the financial centre of Mumbai, are unlikely to have any relaxation so that the partial restoration of the supply chain will pose problems of its own kind.
Consider that of the 100 most populated urban wards in India, 43 are located in Maharashtra; Greater Mumbai alone accounts for 41 of these. In Gujarat, Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara have 20, 11, and 10 such wards respectively, contributing a total of 41 of these. The rest of the country accounts for just 16 most populated urban wards. The denser the area, the higher the affected cases is the simple equation. Hence, Maharashtra and Gujarat will have to work out their strategies on a completely different plane as compared to the rest of the country, 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 being detected, treated, and the number of people succumbing to the disease in different parts of the country, it appears as though each State has to work out its own unique plan post this second phase of lockdown that is expected to end on 3rd of May. Also, the strategies have to be different for different geographic locations even in the same State as the urban conglomerates have entirely different density and settlement patterns as compared to the rural areas.
Just to give an example, the handling of migrant labour will necessarily have to be different in States that receive the so-called guest workers. Kerala has around 31 lakhs of them; other States have much less. But there have been no issues in Kerala in handling the migrant labour, whereas Mumbai and places in Gujarat have witnessed violent scenes. Kerala already had plans on hand while the other State governments have been found wanting. The point is, Central advisories in a blanket manner have little meaning. Micro level planning as regards various aspects has to be dealt with at that particular State level. We will need administrative ingenuity in different ways to be shown in the post-lockdown situation.
We are in this kind of a situation because of mistakes, grave ones, made right from the beginning in delaying the suspension of international flights and in planning for the lockdown. Whatever the ostensible reasons, (whether hosting President Trump end-February, and the toppling of the Madhya Pradesh Congress government end March, were motives or not), the right time to act was around the last week of January not the last week of March!
Testing, the most minimum, was started at the international airports of India quite late; around the second week of March. But then only thermal screening was introduced. All those who did not show any symptoms of fever were let go and those who had fever, some of which could have been unconnected with the coronavirus, that is, the false positives, were expectedly, isolated/quarantined. One cannot quarrel with that. On the other hand, a multitude were let go since they were asymptomatic. That is where the big mistake happened – those who went through the “green channel”, could have been carriers, and as it was realised later, they in fact were. These negative results through thermal screening were undoubtedly false negatives. The State woke up tardily and started searching and chasing these false negatives, from the lists of airline passengers, quite late. Meanwhile, it is not just likely, but for sure these false negatives have infected those they came in contact with. And those contacts have infected others in an ever-widening circle. That has been a colossal, and unforgivable, failure on the part of decision-makers in India. Currently, there are ongoing desperate measures to undo these lapses; but the cases they have to deal with have expanded tremendously due to the earlier lapses.
Also, the suddenness of the lockdown versus a plan to watch carefully, pre-announce steps and stop anxieties would have been a better way to rollout a complete stoppage of all economic activity. That would have ensured that the problem of migrant workers would have been minimised. The lesson we must draw from this is that sudden jolts are never good for people, administrators and the economy. Thus, the lifting of the lockdown, or its continuation in part where it is deemed necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, should be transparently discussed and announced well in advance. This will keep people ready, administrators prepared and will allow for an adjustment with minimum anxiety and stress. It can help contain further disruptions.
We also need to be mindful of the terminology. “Social distancing” as a term has historically been used in India in the context of caste and the associated aspects of discrimination and untouchability. An appropriate and meaningful phrase is “physical distancing” which does convey that distance has to be maintained 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.
Syndicate: The Billion Press