Say ‘No’ To Lockdown Mania; Let It Be Said Loud And Clear, Livelihoods Matter More Than Lives Now

R Jagannathan

Jul 16, 2020, 02:30 PM | Updated 02:30 PM IST

Lockdowns are not the answer.
Lockdowns are not the answer.
  • Choosing livelihoods and calling on Indians to protect themselves as best they can through responsible behaviour is the best answer to this crisis.
  • Before this week is out, India will have crossed the one million mark in terms of Covid-19 cases. The problem is not in that number, but the importance the media has conferred on it instead of the more important ones of active cases (around 3.3 lakhs as at the end of 15 July), and mortality (under 25,000). In normal years, we lose six times that number in road accidents.

    If one were to look at cases of diarrhoea, influenza, tuberculosis, diabetes or heart disease, the numbers would be multiple times the current Covid-19 number, but those don’t spook us. Covid-19 will go when we find a vaccine or a cure, or both, but over the next one year we must expect cumulative case numbers to spike. What we should not do is allow the headline number to spook policy-makers into making the wrong choices.

    After, correctly, deciding to unlock the economy slowly from June, rising numbers have forced state governments to extend lockdowns further and further, for many cities and districts, destroying livelihoods – and lives.

    It is time we stopped fooling ourselves with the motherhood statements that there is no contradiction between saving lives and livelihoods. There is. In the short- to medium-term, there is a tradeoff. In low middle income country like India, where millions eke out a living on daily wages or small businesses, lockdowns destroy both livelihoods and lives.

    So, yes, let it be said loud and clear, we have to prioritise livelihoods over lives over the next 12 months before a vaccine is found.

    A dharmic society – which understands that choices are not always between good and bad – should have understood this earlier than the west, but we haven’t. When there is choice to be made between greater loss and lesser loss, you choose the latter.

    Unfortunately, that is not the choice many states and cities are making today, with Bengaluru – India’s Silicon Valley – choosing to go for another economically destructive lockdown. Lockdowns, if at all needed, should be about specific homes, buildings, streets or wards, not entire cities or districts or states. But that is where we seem to be heading, as the numbers seem to be spooking all of us.

    But before we go into the hows and whys of this argument, it is worth emphasising the need for humility. Consider what is being suggested by “experts”: we are being told that after centuries of medical “progress”, an invisible virus can infect people by the million. But to kill it you must also kill entire economies and livelihoods. Medical knowledge has made much progress since the last pandemic, but its only answer in the short run is to wash hands, wear masks and staying clear of others – and killing the economy.

    Next, consider what economist experts are saying. Nine decades after the Great Depression, the only answer they have for saving livelihoods is printing money. In the 1930s, it was Keynes who gave legitimacy to this idea; today, modern monetary theory (MMT) is telling us you can endlessly print money as long as inflation remains benign. Neither Keynesianism nor MMT is economic theory.

    If that were so, we might as well gift the poor slow, hand-cranked, high-quality currency printing machines so that they can get work in the printing industry and feed themselves with the cash produced. MMT is about saving the skins of politicians, not the economy.

    Two desperate and bankrupt theories – one medical and another economic – are indirectly telling us that when you have no answer to a problem, it is upto god and the people to take care of themselves. Otherwise, the experts will offer solutions that are worse than the disease.

    Maybe, the rich West can afford a year or two of gross domestic product (GDP) collapse, just as rich Japan has managed three decades with little or no growth. When you are rich, you can survive on what you have saved, as is the case with India’s upper middle and rich classes, who can afford to work from home and stay locked up. For the rest, Covid-19 is an economic disaster. Livelihoods are more important than lives to them.

    Consider also the damage we are doing to a society that is trying to erase the curse of untouchability and caste prejudice. The advice on social distancing is well-intentioned, but in our context, it can cause social regression unless we simultaneously do the other thing – save livelihoods. Social distancing without livelihoods is the rich distancing themselves from the poor in the name of fighting Covid-19.

    When most jobs are being created in the services sector, it is this sector that will be devastated by shutdowns and social distancing. Many services, from barber shops and parlours to low-overhead road-side eateries and pay-to-use public toilets, cannot survive prolonged physical distancing protocols.

    If we do not junk the lockdown and closure mentality to fight Covid-19, we are going to allow anarchist and violent forces to overwhelm our democracy, as desperate people will seek desperate remedies for survival.

    Quite simply, we have to choose the lesser evil of letting the economy recover with higher infection rates and more possible deaths. To make lives an ethical issue when we are fighting for survival is bad ethics. In fact, without actually saying so, we make this choice quietly, every day.

    When we face an attack on our borders, we choose to protect broader livelihoods over the few lives we lose in defending the country. When doctors and police personnel take risks to ensure healthcare and law and order, they too are putting their lives at risk. Without saying so, the country is actually choosing livelihoods over lives.

    In Maharashtra, the epicentre of Covid-19, nearly 5,000 policemen have been infected with the virus, and 60 had died by July. State governments have unconsciously chosen our livelihoods over the lives of police and medical personnel in the short run.

    The claim that there is no conflict between lives and livelihoods is actually about making constant choices between what is right for the short-term or the long-term. In the short term, if we choose to save lives, we will lose more of them in the medium to long term. If we choose livelihoods, we may lose more lives in the short run, but in the long run we will lose both lives and livelihoods, for it is the protection of incomes and livelihoods that allows the state and society to generate the surpluses needed to invest in healthcare.

    If we choose lives in the near term, we will lose long-term livelihoods, as businesses and households are learning to replace labour with gadgets and automation. Check out why sales of washing machines, dishwashers, broadband and wifi services are booming even as we make fine intellectual arguments over lives and livelihoods. The longer the period of low economic activity lasts, the more the likelihood of low-skill jobs being destroyed forever.

    Only if livelihoods are secure will we be able to protect lives, for we need growth and incomes to finance the healthcare costs of this crisis.

    India’s politicians, businesses, civil society organisations and individuals have to tell the people that in the Covid-19 Kurukshetra, the people have to take sides and fight for livelihoods – and this means responsible behaviour (masks, distancing, hand washing) has to be everyone’s job, not just that of the law enforcers and medical staff.

    Choosing livelihoods and calling on Indians to protect themselves as best they can through responsible behaviour is the best answer to this crisis.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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