India Must Extend The Lockdown To Prepare Better; Here Are Four Things It Must Do
The lockdown should ideally be extended till 30 April to give the government time to plan an exit. Sudden lifting of restrictions can be counterproductive, and can undo all the good work done so far.
More than two weeks after what can easily be stated as the biggest peaceful lockdown in recorded history, a new conundrum presents itself before the Modi government — to extend the lockdown, or to not, as earlier promised, and get people back to work from mid-April.
Minus some stray incidents and the Nizamuddin event in Delhi, the lockdown has worked. Tracking down of potential cases, quarantine and the healthcare setup has been remarkable, and the government must be credited for quick mobilisation of all resources to curb the spread.
The government, however, needs more time. Once the economy opens, a nation of 1.3 billion people will be required to co-exist with a virus that has killed 100,000 people (and who knows how many in China) for at least a year.
The government, hence, must embark on a series of print, digital, and TV campaigns to educate the general public.
As of now, even if the economy is opened, most commercial establishments and citizens have no set of guidelines to follow, and thus, confusion could set in.
Firstly, masks must be made compulsory for an indefinite period for people opting to use public space and transport of any kind. Anyone refusing to wear a mask must be fined on the spot. The time must be used to ensure a sufficient supply of masks and to set up shops at numerous public places like bus stations, metro stations, airports, and so forth.
As long as the threat of the outbreak remains, masks would be needed. Therefore, the masks must be made as accessible as a packet of potato chips or cola bottle, and equally cheap.
State governments must make an effort to distribute free marks to the people of the economically weaker sections. The time must be used to ramp up manufacturing further.
Universities, schools, offices, and any other commercial establishments with more than 20 people should strictly be told to not allow any worker, suffering from any of the symptoms of coronavirus, to come to work.
Ideally, the government should come out with a guideline of its own on this front, given companies tend to keep organisational interests over human. In the early days of the lockdown, many offices flouted the norms and had their offices open.
One of the prominent banks in India was selling credit cards from a call centre as late as 30 March.
Further, universities must be asked to suspend compulsory attendance for the semesters, for now, and offices must be told to cooperate with workers showing any of the symptoms. Work from home should be advised wherever possible, especially in the service sector.
Resident welfare associations, across India, must be recommended sanitisation measures for their societies, complexes, etc. Any association seen flouting the norms or not adhering to the hygiene measures must be fined by the relevant district authority.
For societies with a population of more than 5,000 people, measures like these will ensure there is no community spread if implemented well.
Similarly, each district must be asked to prepare its own evaluation mechanism for hotels and eateries in the city, and they must be evaluated every 30-days for an indefinite period.
Street vendors and other areas of commercial activities like mandis must be sanitised and be under strict supervision during operational hours. Religious gatherings, until the curve is flattened, must be suspended.
Lastly, e-commerce giants must be brought on board to ensure more procurement from local retail vendors for daily supplies, and for faster deliveries. The procurement from local vendors would save these giants logistics costs in the short run and keep the local kiryana stores afloat.
Amazon, in the US, is already in the process of hiring more than 100,000 workers. A similar push towards e-commerce is required in India today and the likes of Walmart and Amazon must be asked to scale up.
Two, the government must be prepared for a ‘Patient 31’ like outbreak in any part of the country, and therefore, a set of guidelines must be issued to the general public explaining the course of action. More often, misinformation does more harm than government actions, as seen in the early days of the lockdown when people escaped quarantine zones.
Surveillance tools and apparatus must be readied while law enforcement agencies and other administration officials must be briefed on how to seal any hotspot, as they have been now in Delhi and Noida within hours.
The idea should be to narrow down to as many potential cases as possible without spooking the general public. The plan of action must not be constrained by bureaucratic hurdles, as most things are in India.
Three, strict guidelines must be laid out for print, digital, and TV media. Given the vested interests and radical elements in some sections of the national media, there is always an opportunity for rumour-mongering or to claim that sealing of one spot, assuming it is a minority area, is for political gains or violence, or to exaggerate the numbers based on half-baked studies to generate TRPs that further adds to the chaos and confusion.
It is high time that the leadership in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry prepares a set of guidelines for media to follow for all Covid-19 related news. The intent should be to curb the spread of misinformation and not media freedom.
However, as Shaheen Bagh taught us, misinformation disguised as freedom of speech can lead to a deadly riot, and therefore, it is essential to nip the problem of fake news in the bud.
The guidelines issued to media outlets must be made public for the consumption of the population. Citizens must be advised to gather their knowledge from official or government sources alone.
Any media outlet caught in a fake news campaign must be heavily penalised, or best, be barred from government advertisements for 5 years. Taking channels off the air is an option as well. Administrators must be given a free hand to deal with social media misinformation too. The next 14 days must be used to ensure these guidelines are entrenched across the nation, in every home.
If India is to find a way to coexist with the virus outbreak, the role of the media will be critical, thus the guidelines are warranted.
Lastly, Indian Railways, and other state transportation authorities must embark on measures in the next 14 days to plan for the travel of migrant labourers back to the cities. A situation like the one witnessed in Anand Vihar must be avoided at all costs. Informal sector workers must be helped wherever possible by ways of charity or subsidies.
The leadership and the communication, in the next 14 days, will be critical, and ideally, the Prime Minister himself must be in the forefront and not leave it to ministers, who may further add to the confusion. The country must hear from the face it trusts the most.
People must also realise that there is not enough state capacity to deal with a partial opening. For instance, there has been a recommendation that districts must be colour coded by virtue of the number of cases and travel from and to these districts must be controlled.
However, given the force strength and the general public’s regard for law enforcement, it’s an idea that could quickly become an administrative nightmare for both the police and the citizens.
For instance, the National Capital Region (NCR), with its 24 districts witnesses enough people moving from one geographical end to another, each day for work. Curbing movement within these districts, or even across Delhi, Noida, and Gurugram is a hard task. The city of Chandigarh, capital of Punjab and Harayana, gets workers from more than 15 districts and 3 states each day.
The government must see investing in an extended lockdown as an insurance against an immediate outbreak, to have more measures in place for the general public, and to inspire confidence amongst the citizens.
The economy is all about consumer sentiment, and if India goes from 7,600 cases on 11 April to 27,600 on 20 April, the sentiment will be dented anyway as people would want to save and spend on bare essentials. In a desperate attempt to kickstart the economy, the government must not render the work done until 14 April useless.
There is always the economic cost of erring on the side of caution. However, most sectors are going to find their problems aggravated not by the extended lockdown, but the dented consumer sentiment as people would save up more in the near future, fearing a long-term recession. The trickle-down effect of the same would be felt in the informal sector too.
The number of cases may hint towards the opening of the economy but the lack of preparedness for what may follow suggests otherwise. In the short-term, it’s imperative that the government uses this time to make additional preparations and educate 1.3 billion people for a post-Covid-19 life, for once the lockdown is lifted, there is no going back.
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