Corona confusion

Poor planning prior to the nationwide lockdown has created serious disruptions to an already fragile economy. With the country given just four hours to plan for a three-week lockdown, implementation has been a casualty. State police have chosen to interpret the guidelines with their unique brand of subjectivity, assaulting journalists and barring health workers, supply chain deliveries and information technology professionals from attending to vital work. This caused the e-commerce giants such as Amazon, Big Basket, Grofers and Flipkart to announce that they would suspend delivery services. Several smaller ones reported that they have had to destroy quantities of milk and vegetables because of police interceptions of delivery agents. This is in spite of the fact that the online delivery networks can, in fact, help citizens practise social distancing meaningfully (and, importantly, keep many people in employment). The situation may improve marginally with the Delhi and Gurgaon administrations announcing on Wednesday that the police have been instructed not to obstruct e-commerce delivery services. It is vital that other states follow suit — as well as include IT/ITeS within the ambit of exemption.   

Though most IT companies have instituted work-from-home policies, some employees have to access their office premises to attend to mission-critical service and maintenance of servers and networks that serve international and domestic clients and even government networks. These services, by definition, need to be performed on super-secure servers that cannot be accessed via public networks. Put another way, server security is the bread and butter of India’s ITeS industry, which serves most of the world’s largest multinationals. In India, these servers form the backbone of the financial services and banking, telecom and wireless broadband information networks. Yet in Bengaluru, the hub of India’s tech industry, techies have been stopped and threatened by the police from travelling to their locations, prompting Infosys founder and industry grey eminence Narayana Murthy to appeal for the police to be “flexible” and “civilised”. That the lockdown could impact the sole fast-growing segment of the economy and the one that remains a steady forex earner points to poor foresight on the part of the central and state authorities and may well cost the country dear in the long run.  

The second impact is the fallout on society. The prime minister chose to emphasise the criticality of social distancing in his speech. The unforeseen consequence has been wilful ostracism and, worse, vigilantism among communities. Air India management’s appeals to resident welfare associations not to ostracise crew flying rescue missions to COVID-19 hotspots (Iran, Wuhan, Italy) is one example of this. In many parts of the country, citizens have taken it upon themselves to report on neighbours they deem suspect. This may be considered a conscientious thing to do right now but it is also a dangerous indicator of the kind of society we can become. At a time when India is being polarised on religious lines and the threat of the “doubtful citizenship” looms, a message of unity in times of social distancing would have helped.


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