What could have been a better response to stop the spread of the Coronavirus in India than the blanket imposition of lockdown? This retrospective question is important to ask, as it may help us in challenging the irrationality of the current decision-making process and also become important learning to be applied in future.
India’s first case was identified on 30th January. By the first week of February, we could have asked all foreign returned individuals to stay at home, self-quarantine and tracked their movement and imposed severe fines, if they were found moving around. Placed restrictions on international travel and provisioned thermal testing on all airports and for all passengers. Counselling all those who were returning from abroad, through phone calls.
Transparently stating the scale of spread and share that worst may happen and we should prepare for it. Immediately constituting a health and economic task force of experts, inviting ideas to deal with the pandemic and economic repercussions. Releasing nation-wide pamphlets, audio and video clipping on radio, phone and television informing everyone about the virus and ways to deal with it, including physical distancing and washing of hands and usage of masks. Asked the small and medium scale enterprises to go for large scale production of protective equipment both for health fraternity and for the general public, including buying the patent rights to manufacture testing kits and ventilators. This would have created more work and provided money. Enterprises asked to have non- essential services staff to work from home. Manufacturing staff capacity reduced to half and then to one third, in a staggered way. Norms of physical distancing observed.
Further, cancelling all large events starting from the first week of February including Namaste Trump. Reducing the number of pilgrims visiting religious sites and shrines in India and shutting down all prominent religious places by mid-February.
Start working towards a staggered lockdown, having a plan for the movement of migrant workers. Considering the scale of migration in India, whole March could have been devoted for safe transportation of migrant workers after the screening, asking them to not move around at least for a fortnight. After a month of movement, shut down the buses, trains and aeroplanes.
While all this happening, in parallel enhance the social welfare provisions. Making food and medicine, protective gear and soaps available through Public Distribution System and it should be universal. Setting up handwashing stations in the poorer neighbourhoods. Opening bank accounts for working poor on priority basis and transferring an appropriate amount of money on a weekly basis. This expansive public expenditure would have kept the aggregate demand stable. Funds gathered through Prime Minister (PM) Cares and PM and Chief Minister relief fund could have been used for this. Setting up a counselling system to deal with the lockdown, and repercussions of the lockdown like domestic violence, debt stress and abuse.
The government can’t be everywhere, the vibrant civil society and trade unions could have been asked for identifying workers for inclusion in social welfare provisions, setting up testing facilities and helping those who want to go back. An appeal for social solidarity should have been issued by the highest of the authority. Religious institutions could have been involved in using their networks to provide relief.
While doing so, expand the scale of testing and convert a part of primary health centres in all villages and cities as testing facilities. Converting all religious places, conference and convention halls, public and private schools as quarantine facilities. Once everyone is at home and in quarantine facilities, receiving social grants and food through PDS, announce the national lockdown.
The date should be announced a week in advance with clear instructions of what will be open and what will be completely shut, so as to avoid panic. And have the lockdown till we peak and flatten the curve. Whichever city and village Panchayat flattened the curve can resume economic activities at a staggering pace.
A plan for the opening of the economy prepared with some suggestive answers for uncertainty shared with the whole country so that everyone is prepared to deal with the crisis.
A national momentum created for shutting down and opening of the economy. Immediate devolution of power to state governments, municipal corporations and Zila Parishads to take the decisions. They all should have their own respective health and economy expert committees in place to help them in decision making. Setting up a secure network for video conferencing to avoid physical meetings and regular contact with all states, municipal corporations and district committees. Constant monitoring the spread of the virus at municipal, gram sabha level.
This could have been one well thought ‘chronological’ way of doing things. There could have been many others. They all would have provided better plans than this haphazard and ad-hoc decision-making process, which is exactly the opposite of rational policymaking.
Considering that Indians are docile people. They tend to toe the line. They stood quietly in the queues when demonetization happened. They followed the instructions to file taxes under the new haphazard taxation regime of Goods and Service Tax, even if it cost them more. Instead of asking them to clap and bang thalis in their balconies, light candles, they could have been instructed properly on how to be a part of the process to stop the spread of the virus. Some of these strategies were adopted by Kerala, a state which managed to flatten the curve, others could have done that too.