Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Snapshot
  • Indians will comply when they are in control of their lives and livelihoods, not when they are told what to do, when to do, and how to do.

    Indians cannot ultimately be dictated to.

It is a pity that Narendra Modi government opted to pursue Lockdown 4.0 when the needs of the economy should have dictated a faster move away from it.

Lockdowns 1.0 and 2.0 were absolutely needed in order to give the healthcare administration time to ramp up and also to send the message to the population that behavioural changes are needed to contain the threat posed by Covid-19, which has no preventive vaccine.

Lockdown 3.0 marked the beginning of diminishing returns and popular impatience with mobility and activity curbs; Lockdown 4.0 is the phase that is going to be counter-productive. From now on every additional day of lockdown will impose disproportionately higher costs on the economy and livelihoods.

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However, Lockdown 4.0 also has some redeeming features which make it the actual transition point from lockdown thinking to becoming open to business.

Here’s what’s good, bad or ugly about Lockdown 4.0 which begins today (18 May).

The good: the best part of Lockdown 4.0 is that it will no longer be driven by Delhi. States are now the real change-makers, and they are free to devise their own approaches to earmarking red, orange and green zones. The district is no longer the geographical unit for deciding movement and other curbs; it will be based on containment zones, which could be a village, a ward, a specific cluster of streets or buildings in an urban area. Put simply, this implies that a huge geographical area of India can return to normal over the coming weeks.

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The second good thing is the reopening of inter-state bus services, again based on two contiguous states mutually agreeing to it. Intra-state movement can be freed by any state on its own. This will enable a gradual return to normality, for transport is the true measure of rising economic activity. Taxis and autos will also be allowed to return.

The third good thing is the resumption of e-commerce and takeaway restaurant services. We don’t know what this will do to physical retail or restaurants, but for now these are absolutely the road to pushing up economic activities — and jobs.

The abandonment of the arbitrary 33 per cent staff rule for offices is good riddance. States can draw up more neutral safe distancing norms; businesses will decide which staffers can work from home, and whose presence in offices is absolutely vital. Offices and factories can work with 100 per cent staff based on staggered hours and off days, and the decision should be left to them. It will also ease the burden on public transport when it reopens.

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The bad: it is a pity that when shramik trains are moving across the length and breadth of India, when Vande Bharat air services are operating from many parts of the world to India, and when inter- and intra-state bus services are slowly being normalised, the ban on metro and bus services within cities and air services are still banned. Metros and airports are more easy to police on safe distancing and masking compliances than city buses and regular trains, but they have been inexplicably left out. Worse, we do not even have a plan for public transport services to resume in cities as of now.

One also wonders why movie halls and malls should remain shut when other kinds of retail stores can open. Movie halls can clearly be asked to sell fewer tickets than their seating capacities, and malls can manage customer distancing better than kirana shops and departmental stores.

Restricting people movement between 7pm to 7am makes little sense, especially since restrictions on how many people can enter shops or commercial places imply that they should stay open longer hours to service the required numbers. Also, the requirement asking all senior citizens, children below 10 and pregnant women to remain at home is a blanket ban when what matters is the health of the people involved.

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Children need to play, pregnant women and seniors need physical exercises out in the open as much as possible. You can suffer from co-morbidity at 40 and have no health issues at 70. The artificial age restriction should have been replaced with health advisories where individuals can discipline themselves based on their own specific conditions. We need information to manage our own safety, not a nanny state telling everyone what to do.

Also, allowing barber shops to open sounds riskier than allowing restaurants to do so, for haircuts and parlour activities involve close proximities between customer and staff. The latter need protection protocols, and other safeguards. Clearly, the decision to open barber shops and salons has less to do with containing infections and more from a practical necessity to cater to a popular habit of keeping hair trimmed and short. (Though our popular characters from the Ramayan seemed to have no problems with longer hair tied in buns above).

The ugly: what is wrong with the restrictions is not that they are ill-intentioned or wrong, but the assumption that one size will fit all. Just as the decision to leave zoning to states accepts the reality that Delhi cannot call all the shots, the micro-management of which activity can be allowed for whom and when is not going to work.

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The only thing that will work is a commitment to steadily open up all activities, with only the safety protocols being advised from above. The word is advice, and not directive. Indians will comply when they are in control of their lives and livelihoods, not when they are told what to do, when to do, and how to do. Indians cannot ultimately be dictated to.

And yes, as we open up the government must prepare to escalate health spending and support facilities as though nothing else matters. Long after Covid-19 is just an unpleasant memory, these facilities will help us navigate the next Covid. Or TB. Or measles. Or heart disease.

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