Despite many lapses, India should actually be considered a qualified success in how it handled Covid-19. Adjusted for population, weak state capacity, and extreme diversities of language, caste and religion, India has – in just about six months of trial and error – kept its active cases under one million – and it is falling.
It may be too premature to celebrate, for we could still be faced with a second wave of infections as we open up the economy further. Many countries are now witnessing another round of lockdowns, including the US, UK, France, Spain and Israel, and India cannot thus afford to let down its guard.
But there is no need to self-flagellate either. For more than two weeks now, active cases have been falling and new infections are growing at just over 1 per cent daily even though we are testing more than a million people on most days. Some days we even do 1.5 million.
This daily rate of increase is a sharp drop from the 4-5 per cent rates reported last May, which implies that the doubling period is down from 14-18 days then to more than 50-60 days now (63 days, according to Monday’s growth rate of 1.14 per cent). Mortality rates are at 1.5 per cent or lower, especially if we consider the sheer numbers who may have been asymptomatic and handled the infections through their own immune systems.
To top it all, by September we have seen significant economic recovery, whether it is in terms of auto sales or the purchase managers’ index or goods and services tax (GST) revenues, which has shown an actual rise over September 2019. We still need to keep our fingers crossed, but the worst may just be over, even assuming a second wave is possible as the economy opens up further in the festival months. What we have established over the last six months is the ability of the system to cope, despite having a raucous democracy, a tendency to use draconian measures to stop an infection from spreading, and a shrill media that pushes policy-makers to adopt terrible, growth-sapping policies.
India is an exception by any standard. We are neither a monoculture nor a dictatorship nor a nation defined by very good state capacity. Our only way of learning to do things is by actually doing them, by making mistakes, having the mistakes pointed out, and by copying best practices quietly from one another. (Our political culture prevents us from even acknowledging a good thing we copied from someone else, unless it is from abroad.) This is what has saved the day for us, and not any specific policy adopted by some government or the other, both at Centre and states.
Each government did something right, something wrong, which is why we are seeing one model after another bite the dust – while another springs up somewhere. In the early days, we extolled the Kerala model too soon, but that state now has the third largest number of active cases, after Maharashtra and Karnataka. This is not about the Kerala model being wrong, but that we should not celebrate early success too soon, or claim success merely because luck favoured one state at one point, and another at another point.
Excessive breast-beating about lost gross domestic product (GDP) in the first quarter, where there was a precipitous 23.9 per cent fall, is also wrong. This is being attributed to a “draconian” national lockdown, when this is partially untrue. In the first quarter, half the districts in the country simply did not lock down (agriculture and related industries and essential goods movements were never shut down), or were minimally impacted.
The sharp fall in output is simply the result of the fact that the biggest generators of GDP and tax revenues – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat – were among the worst affected by Covid-19 in that quarter. Also, congested urban areas bore the brunt of those infections, which again impacted GDP disproportionately. Now that these states are coming to grips with Covid-19 and its fallout, we will see a dramatic recovery, as the September trends show.
There must also be a good word to be said about the Narendra Modi government’s economic management during the last six months. There has been no month in which influential intellectuals – from Raghuram Rajan to every Right- or Left-leaning economist – did not berate the government for not doing enough to boost demand, which is short-hand for handing over cash to lots of people. The Modi government has been parsimonious in doling out cash, even though it has been generous with easing credit and offering benefits in kind to the poor. This includes the latest decision to not impose higher interest costs on borrowers who took advantage of the repayment moratorium. The government has preferred to use bulging stocks of foodgrain, free kitchen fuel supplies and small amounts of cash to help the poor keep their home fires burning.
By keeping the fiscal powder dry, the government can now give a demand booster in the coming months, if it chooses to. Even better, it has used the Covid-19 crisis to push through reforms in agriculture and labour laws that will aid the revival when it happens. Reforms that should have been done in the 1990s are being done only now, and this is no small achievement for a government which faces tough political tests in the coming months. And we cannot forget the Chinese threat on our borders, which will surely siphon off a large portion of our tax revenues in the coming months.
The media, too, did a good job, despite bouts of screaming with faulty data. In the initial months, it did a great job of informing citizens about the Covid-19 threat and what to do about it, with doctors doing most of the talking. Later, as the infection numbers soared, it relapsed into shrillness, forgetting that in a country with the second largest population and people living in dense urban localities, absolute numbers of Covid-19 cases will always be very large. But then, so will recoveries. Few people are aware that more than 5.58 million people have recovered from Covid-19, and our mortality rates are crashing by the day.
In sum, we need to recognise that the country has passed several crucial tests in a very difficult year in which multiple threats – health, defence, internal security, and livelihoods – have been handled reasonably competently. One can also argue to the contrary, that many things could have been handled much better, and that the brunt was borne by the poor, whether through loss of income or poor healthcare facilities, but is there any country which can claim it could not do better? The only real black spot was in how the government handled the migrant crisis, where it initially was in denial, and only later came around to sending them home in trains and buses.
We can’t afford to relax, but we can surely tell ourselves things are not so bad after all. We did more things right than wrong.
The lessons we have learnt, but which we may well forget fairly quickly, are worth repeating.
One, livelihoods will always be more important than lives as long as we are not a proper middle income country. At that stage, the balance will start tilting in favour of lives over livelihoods.
Two, the early lockdowns were important for giving the state(s) time to gear up for the coming demand for hospitals, personal protective equipment, testing facilities, and medicine, but the later ones – especially the ones imposed by panicking states with high infection rates – were counter-productive. This may be the price we pay for federalism, but it is still a high price paid for bringing down infections. The early lockdowns had an important psychological impact – it told ordinary people that Covid-19 is a serious problem and they had to protect themselves. Without the initial lockdown and the messaging about crisis that went with it, the infection would have spread faster, accelerating mortality rates.
Three, Indian media is largely data-illiterate. It tends to be obsessed with absolute numbers, either through ignorance or by choice, which makes the task of managing public expectations and developing sensible policies difficult – to say the least. Most of the state-level lockdowns were draconian for this reason, as headlines giving out massive numbers gave the wrong picture. To say one day that India (or any state) had the largest single-day increase in the world means nothing without adjusting for population and stage of spread of the infection. Becoming the second most Covid-infected country after the US is fine, for we are also the second largest country by population.
India’s current Covid-19 cases, at 6.6 million, will be down to just 1.6 million compared to the US when adjusted downwards for population. It is not very much higher than Germany’s population-adjusted total of 4.87 million (actual cases: 304,673). Adjusted for state capacity and healthcare facilities, India is doing at least as well as Germany. (FYI: India’s population is 4.1 times that of the US, and 16 times that of Germany.)
Clearly, the government needs to educate the media with its own homework on these fronts, so that journos – especially those without any political agendas colouring their lenses – get the right picture.
The rest cannot be helped, with or without data.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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