With the draconian 40-day, two-phase lockdown in India due to end on 3 May, one hears the term 'calibration' a bit too often. While some steps can indeed be calibrated (for example, expanding Covid-19 testing or hospital beds steadily, week after week), when it comes to reopening a complex economy, you can’t humanly 'calibrate' the unlocking of life in any precise way.
It cannot be an Excel sheet decision managed (usually mismanaged) by babus writing rules sitting far away from reality.
The lockdown worked precisely because no babu thought it could be calibrated. They hit everybody with a blunt instrument when they were not expecting it and it worked; so why do people believe that unlocking the economy can be calibrated by brilliant experts and bureaucratic minds in Delhi and in the state capitals?
The calibration, if any, has to be done by the people, the businessmen and the markets that connect buyer to seller.
Consider just one simple example: a factory may be in the green zone, but its suppliers may be in the red or orange zones, and customers in all kinds of zones. How will government calibrate this factory’s reopening?
Is calibration best left to the factory owner or the babu? The only thing the government must do is enable all kinds of reopenings in one fell swoop, including by the provision of cheap loans. The actual reopening decision has to be commercial and practical.
Thus, on 3 May, when phase 2 of the lockdown ends, we need to make two big decisions: a huge ramping up of healthcare capacities (testing, beds, quarantine zones), and an even bigger tamping down of restrictions on economic activity.
There should be no attempt to micromanage the unwinding of the lockdown beyond empowering ordinary people and traders and businessmen to protect themselves and their employees from undue health risks.
So, here are 10 suggestions on how to open up the economy after 3 May, leaving the rate of calibration to individuals and firms.
#1: The areas of lockdown and containment to prevent the spread of Covid-19 must be narrowed to specific roads, lanes and even single buildings. They should not comprise entire districts or even cities. A red zone could be a municipal ward, half a ward, or a village, but not even an entire tehsil or district. This way, containing the spread will be easier than trying to bottle up millions of people for no reason at all.
#2: The attempt should be to reduce orange and red zones by expanding the green zones where all economic activities will be allowed subject to only safety protocols like physical distancing, wearing of masks and regular use of water and sanitisers to disinfect one’s hands. Some orange zones can be made green merely by physically shifting patients to red zones. Where this is not possible due to distance or lack of facilities, the area covered by orange must be shrunk to very tiny zones.
#3: Public transport must be started within a week after 3 May, for without transport there can be no reopening. To avoid overcrowding, several strategies can be adopted, One is to allow workplaces to resume with staggered hours, or only on alternate days. Another way is to allow only companies with names starting with A-H to work two days a week, those with I-P on two other days, and the rest on the remaining two. Workplaces can also be allowed to offer staggered weekly offs instead of bunching them all on Sundays.
#4: Private transport must be allowed almost immediately after 3 May, subject to the condition that only one person will be allowed on a two-wheeler, and two in a car. Private buses and tempos can be hired by employers to ensure that their employees do not have to use crowded buses. Boarding any bus or Ola or Uber taxi without masks and a bottle of sanitiser should be discouraged, if not banned.
Public transport buses can be run from point to point, so that passenger inflows can be regulated and not allowed to keep coming in as the bus progresses from stop to stop.
Suburban trains and metros should be restarted in a similar way, with only a limited number of commuters allowed in at any time onto the platform. The railway police must prevent commuters from rushing into departing trains, by restricting overcrowding. Point to point services, whether on suburban routes or long-distance ones, should be the norm.
#5: Workplaces must be allowed to use nearby hotels and guest houses to let their staff work from closer to office and factory where this is possible, subject, of course, to the same safety protocols of physical distancing, etc. The hospitality industry, the worst-affected by the lockdown, will benefit from offering bulk rates to corporate customers for a month or two, allowing it to calibrate its own return to business.
#6: Migrant labour must be allowed to go home and return freely on trains and buses, subject of course to the same condition that there will be no over-crowding. This can be ensured by effectively policing entry stations, and not halting the trains till they reach specific destinations. Travellers can be asked to book in advance, and booking closed when trains are half full. Trains can also be halted outside stations so that normal station crowds do not seek to enter running trains. After each journey, rail staff must clean and sanitise all coaches.
#7: A steady ramping up of hospital capacity, both for Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patients, along with beds, testing facilities, etc, must happen by the end of June. By then, India should be able to triple its available beds, raise daily testing capacity to two or three lakh. At some point, testing facilities should be available on demand at any office or workplace at any time.
#8: Unlike the earlier two phases, in the micro-lockdowns of phase 3 and beyond (ie, in May and June), where all activities may be allowed as long as safety rules are followed, policing and enforcement must be done primarily by volunteer teams and social groups from the communities which need to be locked down in containment zones.
The police must only appear where there is violence or a short-term need for enforcing a situation gone out of control. Thus, instead of pitting the police against the people, local volunteer groups from the communities being policed must play the lead role in enforcement. The police can use drones to oversee compliance from the air and intervene only when needed. They should use flying squads as force multipliers where needed, instead of being permanently manning the barricades.
#9: Special protocols should govern services like hair cutting-saloons and beauty parlours, where service providers have to be physically close to clients and customers out of necessity. Use of gloves, single-use fabrics, regular sterilisation of equipment, and personal protection gowns – though not of the same extreme quality used by healthcare workers – should be insisted upon, if needed by subsidising them. This may need regular checks by health and labour department officials to ensure enforcement.
Restaurants can initially be opened for takeaways, but by end-May they should be able to open for sit-in or stand-in consumption on the premises by following safety protocols.
#10: Sectors where work-from-home is easily possible (media, infotech services, customer support) should be incentivised to do so for an extended period.
A sobering thought: even if 90 per cent of shops, restaurants, flights, trains, buses, factories and workplaces start work, actual levels of output will not exceed 50-60 per cent of normal for quite some time as they will operate far below capacity due to the safety protocols necessitated by Covid-19.
The lockdown worked because it was total; the opening up will not work if it is not total, too. We have to open up 90 per cent of businesses by May-end, and let people and firms work out for themselves how to do the calibration in their own specific cases based on supply chain, cost and market and customer realities.
Covid-19 is a good place to begin ending the nanny state and the licence-permit raj. Indians are smart enough to know, or find out, what is good for them.
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