The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global crisis of our times – on the economic, health and humanitarian grounds. At the time of writing, there are close to 4 million confirmed and documented cases, with around 275,000 deaths worldwide. The United States of America, Europe (mainly Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Germany) and Russia remain worst affected with the highest number of cases and high fatality rates. Closer home, India has over 65,000 confirmed cases, with around 2,000 deaths and 20,000 recoveries.
The Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11th March 2020, owing to the spread and severity of the disease.
Since then, this pandemic has had a huge impact all over the world – around half of the world’s population remained under strict lockdown for up to a month or more. Schools, colleges and other educational institutions will remain shut for the foreseeable future. Offices, non-essential workspaces and non-essential services remain shut in several countries where cases are rising, with the USA being the notable exception (where even partial lockdowns are being lifted despite the number of cases being over a million and rising). Countries that have hit peaks already (such as China, New Zealand, Italy) are cautiously reopening workspaces and markets in a phased manner to prevent a resurgence of the virus.
India initiated its first nationwide lockdown on 25th March, for 21 days, extending it by 14 days on April 14 (with conditional relaxations 20th April onwards based on the number of cases and recoveries in respective districts), finally extending it for another two weeks on May 1 by dividing the country into green, orange and red zones (based on the number of cases) with conditional relaxations in green and orange zones.
While India is expected to hit the peak of the curve by mid-June, certain hotspots such as Mumbai are expected to hit it as early as mid- to end of May, and Kerala has already come down from its peak and has (almost) sufficiently mitigated the COVID-19 threat.
Government in India (both State and Centre) are being forced to decide whether to protect lives or livelihoods. This decision is weighty, at a time when normal activity would endanger lives due to spread of infection, and staying home would mean business losses and unemployment especially for those who cannot work from home – those in the tourism industry (hotels, tour guides, restaurants), factory workers, barbers and hairstylists, cab drivers – the list is very long.
This specifically impacts those who sustain themselves on regular wages (daily/weekly/monthly) and do not have savings such as labourers working on farms, factories and in construction, domestic help, public transport drivers (bus, auto-rickshaw and taxis). The extended lockdowns mean that they aren’t able to earn enough to feed themselves, and they are pushed further into poverty.
Currently, India is divided into 3 kinds of zones – green, orange, red. Green indicates no active cases, orange indicates contained spread with few active cases, and red indicates a hotspot with a high number of active cases. Red and orange zones have containment zones that contain areas where there is localised spread of cases (such as residential complexes containing an active patient or resident(s) who have been exposed to an active patient, hospitals where a high number of doctors have fallen sick, office/ commercial spaces with active patients in close proximity, etc.) and no activity or movement in and out of these containment zones is allowed.
Activities prohibited nationwide include – travel by air (domestic and international), travel by train (excluding special trains run for migrants), travel by interstate buses; functioning of schools, colleges and educational institutes, operations in gymnasiums, sports complexes, swimming pools; operations in cinema halls, shopping malls; as well as all social, religious and political gatherings. Delivery of essential goods through e-commerce, standalone shops, urban construction, banks, movement of goods and courier, urban industry and agricultural activities are allowed nationwide.
Activities permitted in green zones include functioning of (inter- and intra-district) buses at 50% capacity, the functioning of barbershops and spas, and everything apart from the prohibited activities.
Curbs in orange zones include limits on transportation in cabs and private vehicles as well as prohibition of travel through buses. Private offices have been allowed to function. No movement and relaxations have been provisioned in containment areas within orange zones.
In red zones, travel through auto-rickshaws, cabs and buses is prohibited. Industrial activities in urban areas are limited to Special Economic Zones (SEZ), Export Oriented Units, and manufacturing units of pharmaceuticals and other essential goods. Private offices can function at 33% capacity. All agricultural activities are permitted.
The above rules are as per guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs prior to the third lockdown, but states have overriding powers – several states including Maharashtra and Gujarat have enforced blanket shutdowns across some or all red zones.
As far as the overall response to COVID-19 in India is concerned, most of it has been reactionary rather than proactive. Lockdowns were extended after cases spiked instead of having comprehensive policies, the MHA has been editing policies through notifications all through the 35 days of lockdown in phase 1 and 2, states have reversed relaxations after observing a drastic rise in cases through this week (May 4 onwards).
Essential service workers such as doctors, nurses and law enforcement have been severely mistreated, with several instances of them being beaten up by people while they were involved in surveying affected areas. Additionally, medical professionals have been working overtime and there has been a significant shortage of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), and this endangers these brave frontline warriors.
Conceding that there is a global shortage, this is one glaring insufficiency that must be rectified immediately. Testing has definitely grown since the beginning of the outbreak, but numbers need to be higher to detect transmission, especially in high population density areas.
Additionally, the migrant crisis was barely handled – it took the government several weeks to notice the plight of the migrant workers stuck without food or pay in several industrial and urban hubs, waiting to go home. It was only last week that trains specifically meant for migrants (called “Shramik Special”) were allowed to ply, with ambiguity over whether migrants are supposed to pay the fare themselves or whether their respective states or the Centre was paying for them.
There have been some principally sound steps announced, such as extra ration being available to ration-card holders under the PDS system, these are yet to be effectively implemented. The pulses promised to these ration-card holders have not even been sourced for PDS shops, let alone made available to them. The Railways and respective governments have readied empty coaches as isolation zones in rural areas to deal with spikes in cases and pre-existing shortage of hospital beds in these rural areas.
Certain questionable policies that are unclear and may be bad in the long run include repealing most labour protection laws in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat in order to boost investment and incentivise industry. This may lead to exploitation of the workforce along with the withdrawal of industry especially since growth is tied to healthy labour laws. There is a significant chance that labour would migrate to more lucrative areas (especially daily wagers and unskilled labourers) thereby making this revival difficult.
The point here is that while the administration has risen to the challenge of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, it is chasing the virus and reacting to developments instead of learning from administrations that have handled this (whether from their mistakes or successes).
The efforts made are much appreciated, while recognising that there is much more that can and should be done, adequate enforcement of social distancing (absent in densely populated areas, markets and in front of liquor shops), economic relief packages (necessary, especially to revive an economy that was already suffering from the early signs of a slowdown), protecting jobs and labour, among others.
It is definitely necessary to implement a comprehensive action plan that adapts society and industry to a post-COVID era that takes into account work-from-home & social distancing and boosts economic revival through spending & investment.