Edit & Opinion

Great Depression 2020: Present, only constant

The Spanish Flu of 1918 to the Great Depression 2020, indeed times have changed where our future plans mock our present predicament. From our age of innocence before choice paralysed us, to an AI home delivery Alexia App. Liberated from the calendar of our travels, next destination, subsequent eating out, followed by gym, movies and concerts all nibbled away in our bruising battle against Covid 19. As we wait for the corona virus to reveal our future, the only constant is the present. Either which way, the world will never be the same again.

Happily, a national strategy to tackle the pandemic and get the economy moving seems to have been worked out as Prime Minister Modi continues to talk to Chief Ministers, Panchayat members etc of the challenging journey ahead. Even as he extended the “total lockdown” to 3 May, he outlined an exit strategy for staggered re-emergence of the population taking into account the ground reality that life has to slowly pick up the reins of normalcy.

Towards that end, the Government’s armed with a consensus among States has expanded its list of ‘essential services’ to include agriculture which employs more than 50℅ of the Indian workforce and contributes close to one-fifth of the country’s GDP. With the harvest season grain and rice producing States have partially lifted the lockdown to ensure procurement of grains which in turn would generate income for farmers and also keep the supply chains at mandis functioning.

Alongside, fishing and aquaculture industry, tea, coffee and rubber plantations with maximum of 50% workers, processing, packaging, sale and marketing of tea, coffee, rubber and cashew, with maximum of 50% workers, animal husbandry farms including poultry and livestock farming activity.

Undeniably, even as the lockdown provided an immediate respite from the growing epidemic, there is an urgent need to ameliorate the adverse economic and social impact of the battle itself, and fine-tune the strategy to address the enemy. Towards that end, the ‘JAM’ trilogy:  Jan Dhan accounts, Aadhaar, mobile phones and Aarogya Setu app are coming in handy.

Consequently, it has given the Government a free hand to resort to a selective lockdown depending on the exigencies of the situation which might differ from region to region. Whereby the ‘hotspots’ will be tackled in a differentiated approach of extended lockdown.

Pertinently, in a spirit of cooperative federalism some States are finding innovative ways to handle the crisis. While not a few prefer to follow the Kerala roadmap which has successfully slowed the spread of infection by preparedness, testing, promoting physical distancing instead of social distancing which has caste connotations and sanitary precautionary measures, providing better protection for health staff, getting religious leaders, local bodies and civil society organizations to participate in policy design and implementation.

The Tamil Nadu police have found a novel way to reduce the number of vehicles on the road and movement of people. Unlike Delhi’s famous even-odd rule, the police therein paint the edges of car number plates and mudguards and two-wheelers with four different colours: yellow, red, blue and brown. On a particular day it allows only vehicles, marked with the assigned colour to ply for the day. The next day another colour and so on. Only Sunday has been assigned two colours.

Other States are adopting Rajasthan’s Bhilwara model where ‘ruthless containment’ became the buzzword. In 1,910 villages in the district, panchayats, samitis and local SDMs and BDOs were involved in tackling the virus where it went from being the worst-affected district to a paradigm in managing Covid 19.

As cases spiked the district imposed a complete clampdown and had the situation under control in 10 days. First it sealed borders with other districts followed by mapping hotspots, door-to-door screening, aggressive contact tracing, ramping up quarantine and isolation wards, social distancing was strictly enforced with nobody allowed to venture out of their homes and a monitoring mechanism for rural areas put in place. Essentials including food items, rations and medicines were delivered to everyone’s doorstep. If people broke the social distancing rule, they were deprived of their rations for the day.

However, despite the doubling rate reduced to 10, should the situation get worse with the number of cases growing at an accelerated pace, the system will clearly be overwhelmed. The John Hopkins University’s Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy predicts that by June a total of 12 crores or 120 million Indians will be infected and of these 11 lakhs or 1.1 million will be hospitalized. Succinctly, we cannot be complacent.

Take Madhya Pradesh where Government data shows the State with a population of over 7.5 crores has just one ventilator for every 75,000 people and one intensive care unit bed for every 47,000 and a total of 993 ventilators and 1,598 ICU beds in Government and private hospitals put together. However, the availability of hydroxychloroquine, a potential cure for the virus is around 30 tablets per person.

One upside in these stressed times we have come out with new modernism. Out of the window is the ‘Eskimo kiss’, Russian bear hug, Muslim salam, Namaste is the new hello. Also fresh lexicons have been added to our vocabulary:  PPE (personal protective equipment), VC (video conference), VPN (video personal network) and the ventilator have become objects of national fascination.

With the lockdown causing a strain on the country’s already stretched fiscal situation, limited Government resources, rising unemployment, a likely recession and an increasingly worrying medical and humanitarian situation. Ironically, even as migrant workers are stranded at State and district borders without any money, the Government is hamstrung in finding labour to kickstart projects.

The challenge today, is to put in place a strategy and articulate courses of action beyond the lockdown and look at possible solutions. Importantly, the Government needs to immediately tackle the economic and social costs of a large number of jobless and marginalised people who could slip into poverty. NaMo has made plain that we need to tighten our belts. The livelihood of hundreds of millions of people depends on how well the Government machinery handles the crisis.

Clearly this is just the start of the war as the lockdown has only bought us time to get our act together. It doesn’t change the virility of Covid, has no effect on the morality rate and was only intended to delay it.  We need to protect our healthcare system to handle the load.

It will be many weeks and months before this black swan crisis gets over. But don’t be fooled there could be lasting changes that are wrought. Yet it is times of despair and depression which show up the strengths and weaknesses of a system. The virus has exposed India’s new strengths and its inherent ability to tackle its weaknesses.

With cynics and pessimists predicting doomsday nearing, responsible statecraft is an imperative in such extraordinary times. Our netas have to collective chalk out a single uniform strategy for the whole country to get it out of this crisis. Modi has taken the lead and is showing statesmanship in engaging with Opposition leaders.

Time is far gone for the Opposition to continuously whine and crib as no Party can absolve itself of responsibility. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ The times ahead will test the resilience of our rulers and us.  Clearly, the stakes are very, very high.

….INFA

 

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