Needed: A graded exit from lockdown

Agriculture and MSMEs are the sectors that can be opened first.


When was the first time that you heard the word lockdown and understood its real meaning? For the most of us, our brush with the word, and our experience of living with it is not more than 35 days. But to the majority of us, including those poor and underprivileged Indians living in pigeon-hole shanties, it feels as if we are spending a 14- year life term in our homes. It’s getting boring, restless and for many living on the edge, signalling suicidal tendencies. Still this prison, by far, has proved to be the safest, if not the most cushy and comfortable, against an enemy threatening to end our identity the moment we come face-to-face with it. So far, avoiding it has turned out to be the best weapon possible. The more we delay a face-off with the novel coronavirus—the worst devastation caused to mankind since the World Wars in the last one century—we do not lose the war, if not completely win it. Not many agree with my point, but just read these few numbers. Today standing at a corona positive tally of nearly 28,000 and counting, with nearly 900 deaths so far, the country faces a catch-22 situation—do we open up our economy or do we extend the lockdown further to irritate the “enemy to finally return without much damage to the population”? Many argue and, in fact, have rightly put that the lockdown is causing a lot of disruption and distress and is threatening livelihoods. To me, lives are more important than livelihoods and in a country facing a terrible job scenario, another fortnight of waiting will not usher in the “Great Depression”. Even the US with the highest ever unemployment figures of 22 million is not anticipating such a situation, yet. In fact, President Donald Trump is fighting and asking the states to delay reopening as it’s still too early. With a vaccine not in sight until the next year—and we are not sure if India will get it immediately after its first production—can we afford to let this virus penetrate so deeply and “freely at will”? So far, we have managed fairly well in arresting the virus, compared to what the powerful West—from the US to Europe—has faced in terms of lives lost. The spread of the virus was arrested, thanks to quick thinking by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his tri-antidote to the corona pandemic—information, prevention and lockdown. The war against the corona is not yet over, we are only winning battles, thanks to the last 40 days of strong discipline on our part to let PM Modi’s mission of social distancing and lockdown triumph as main weapons against the virus. Still I say, had we not allowed the migrant population and also the “unfortunate” Markaz gathering in New Delhi to happen, we would have been sitting more comfortably. Going by the numbers, even now with about 2,000 cases getting added daily, the recovery rate is just about 25%—this will jump to over 30% as soon as the maximum cases that have gone to quarantine start showing negative results inside a week. India has shown to the world the fruits of discipline and we just need another 10-14 days of self-discipline to “frustrate the virus from attacking us”. Those who may be arguing for opening must not forget that we need to do it in phases and also with strict monitoring and regulation. The case here is of Maharashtra, Delhi and Gujarat—the three business nerve centres and one political power centre, which also account for nearly 50% of the current corona positive cases. Maharashtra and New Delhi in particular have a lot of business movements. Not rejecting that business is getting affected, but top corporate minds and those who are genuinely working from home to keep business moving, will still work under lockdown for another fortnight. It will be like taking a full course of antibiotics! The sectors that can be opened are agriculture as the crops are lying in field and need to be taken to destinations so that supplies this season do not get affected. This will call for opening of carrier transportation as both agriculture and transportation ensure complete social distancing and minimal public contact. MSMEs follow next, with strict regulation and monitoring of work force attending the job clusters. There are many livelihoods linked to the MSMEs and this can be one beginning to open up India, if not completely. With movement of students at all levels not a worry until July, the hospitality sector should be the next in line and start gearing up by taking all precautions, including anti-corona orientation for the staff. Restaurants can become takeaways to start some business rolling. Grocery shops and those neighbourhood vends not allowing more than a couple of people to enter can be allowed to operate. So can be markets showing complete corona negative results. The latter can open to a capped number through particular entry and exit points showing the exact number of visitors at one point. We don’t have the vaccine, but we have to be innovative and beat it by avoiding a face-off with the enemy and keep the damage to bare negligible levels. The weeks ahead will tell us how much damage the fleeing migrants and the Markaz attendees have actually caused. The country needs to wait to map the region-wise effect and decide on easing restrictions, based on the states’ frank and honest feedback. The level of threat of infection should be the “only” criterion for lifting the lockdown. My fear against fully opening India is based on three reasons: the country, with its vast size, densely packed population and a creaking health infrastructure has a lot of inter-state migration of casual workers. Second, the ongoing Ramzan month sees a lot of community movement. And last, but not least, the marriage season will soon begin, for which shopping and arrangements will create sudden confusion on the roads and in the markets. We have to see and not lie to the fact that we are stepping out without being sure if the enemy has finally returned. But frustrating the enemy is in our hands and the call is entirely ours—do we want to do a stable business or want to pursue a “risky livelihood option”? A graded de-escalation may be a handy option and the officials must gear up for that, if an extended lockdown is not coming through.