A long haul

The time taken for the doubling of Covid-19 cases has slowed to seven and a half days from an average of four-plus earlier. Many people have worked very hard to bring this about. While everyone may not agree with the government’s approach, and some may argue that it went into an overdrive too late (about two weeks after the World Health Organization declared this a pandemic), it has to be recognised that it has scrambled since then to deal with the issue. While recognising this, India should not declare victory too early in the fight to control the disease, like George W Bush and his “Mission accomplished”. India’s numbers of those infected are still growing rapidly. From a base of over 17,000 as of Sunday night, there could be possibly two doublings over the next fortnight, when the second phase of the lockdown is scheduled to end. Over 60,000 cases by then will mean that governments will be chary of any complete lifting of the lockdown even at that stage; it will have to be partial and in stages.

Keeping people cooped up endlessly is not feasible, there will be psychological damage. Ways of allowing movement without increasing risk have to be thought of now and administratively worked out so as to avoid a repetition of the migrants’ plight. The government cannot continue to enforce the world’s severest lockdown beyond 40 days. India also needs to be alert to the fact that countries like Singapore have seen a second phase of infection, and China has seen a Covid outbreak in a completely new area. So this battle is far from over. It is also true that four times the number of cases, two weeks from now, will test the system’s capacity to cope. The government needs to continue to expand institutional capacity, as it has done so far with the production of masks, drugs, protective equipment, importing testing equipment, setting up field hospitals, and so on.

There are other challenges as well. An extended lockdown will also increase the damage to the economy, and therefore heighten the need to focus on livelihood issues, which have been relatively neglected so far. The government will have to give up its minimalist approach, leaving the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to do the heavy lifting. The RBI has reduced the policy rates and infused plenty of liquidity into the system. But this will not be enough. Beyond what the central bank has done, the government will have to step in to offer credit backstop and cash-flow support to keep businesses going and control unemployment, and ensure that the rabi harvest comes into mandis and is bought, transported, and stored. In the absence of government support, a large number of businesses may not be able to survive, resulting in mass unemployment. Economic damage of this scale in a country like India where a large part of the population works in the informal sector, with little or no savings to fall back upon, would cost lives (apart from causing hardship). Just because they can’t be counted does not mean that they are not being lost. While both the Central and state governments are providing relief, state capacity in India is fairly limited. Therefore, the government should now prepare to save livelihoods.

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