He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount, so goes an old proverb. Prime Minister Modi perhaps is in the same predicament: The lockdown has been extended again by two weeks. But, what after that? Is he merely buying time in the feverish hope that the curve will be flattened? That a miracle cure or vaccine will appear on the horizon soon?
Questions which have no easy answers. The only thing one can say with certainty is the virus is here to stay and there is no going back to normality the way we knew it. That train has left the station. Yet there is going to be life after Covid 19 and it will be the new normal.
Certainly, the pandemic is the most tumultuous, most catastrophic and the most defining epoch of our lifetime. From the end of December 2019, when the first cases were reported in China to the middle of April 2020 when an estimated one-third of the world’s population is locked into their homes
As the lockdown continues it has been an unprecedented 42 days with no rulebook which told the Government what to do, when and how to lockdown, when and how to shut down the economy and when and how to re-open industry and businesses. Worse, as nations trade charges whether the virus jumped from an animal host to humans or was nurtured in a Wuhan laboratory, it matters little as it has been deadly and devastating. Underscoring, the collective vulnerability of our world to a lowly virus.
The sheer scale of human deprivation is frightening as migrant workers and poor trudge their never ending ‘walks to home’ as their jobs are taken away. Think: The economies of the poor are not based on the security of tenure, but on their daily earnings. India has over 410 million workers in the unorganised sector, the vast majority of whom are daily wagers making a little more than the prescribed official wages and often much below that.
Through this maelstrom the Government grapples with the immediate — relief and rescue operations — to the poor, workers, industry etc and evacuating those stranded in the country. Trains have started to run once again after more than a month as have national highways but only to allow special buses to transport those stranded home.
How long can the mass of people go without daily earnings? Despite the economic packages, including Rs 500 each in crores of Jan Dhan accounts, and Rs 2,000 each for crores of farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Yojna, without restoring normalcy for farms, factories, bazaars and mandis across the country, the misery of the aam aadmi is bound to grow further.
And God forbid if the economy tanks it will be a double-whammy for the poor. Unlike the 2007-08 global financial crisis, 2020 is primarily a health crisis, which has given birth to an economic shock. It has resulted in job loss, disruption of supply chains along-with slowdown in manufacturing and services activities.
Workers are back to their home in faraway places, lack of orders may eventually lead to massive trade contraction. Add to it disruption in air travel, fall in tourism, reduction in outdoor entertainment industries, rise in bankruptcy and NPAs. The Government needs to urgently put “economic antibodies” to save the economy from further disaster. Gradual opening of the economies and adjusting in the ‘New Normal’ is the need of the hour.
Alas, the contagion has exposed we live in a dog-eat-dog world with each country thinking only of its crisis. Sparring about who will make the first vaccine, competing for medicine supplies, pirating protective equipment, masks and gowns needed for healthcare workers. What is alarming is that the numbers of those infected likely stem from under-reporting, and may probably rise alarmingly in the weeks ahead if we factor in asymptomatic patients and rapid tests.
What next? According to Harvard’s professor of immunology and infectious diseases the only possible method for dealing with the epidemic may be multiple ‘intermittent’ social distancing periods that ease up when cases fall to a certain level and then are re-imposed when they rise past a key threshold. As time passes and more of the population gains immunity, the restrictive episodes could be shorter, with longer intervals between them.
Another epidemiologist of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control asserts that the policy on lockdown is not evidence-based. Instead, the right way is to protect the old and the frail only which will eventually lead to herd immunity as a “by-product.” It is paramount to build herd immunity while shielding the vulnerable.
However, not a few doctors fear that the flattening of the incidence curve would stop once the lockdown is lifted. Yet the lockdown cannot be a permanent solution. We need to work towards herd immunity produced by the infection that is our only hope. Recalling, that the 2009 HINI influenza epidemic came, stayed for 2-3 months and spontaneously disappeared. Why? As there was a certain level of herd immunity which was produced by the infection.
Undeniably, till date India has successfully controlled the virus’s transmission thanks to the Central and State Governments well-coordinated steps, mass public awareness with the help of digital systems, prowess in pharmaceuticals and a central political command. Yet there could be a rise in death and destabilization and complicated diseases.
We can learn rich lessons from South Korea and Taiwan which managed to control the devastation with the help of rapid tests and targeted solutions. Vietnam has recorded no death from the virus while China has taken help of digital technology such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI-ML) to contain its spread in major cities in its mainland.
Undeniably, the post-epidemic stage will see the emergence of a new human being, whose daily behavior habits, thinking and sentiments will differ from what it was before the Covid outbreak. From being a ‘social animal’ to ‘being scared to go out in public places’. As social isolation intensifies amidst the social distancing and WFH (work-from-home) finds root, digital currency, shopping, gaming and OTT (over-the-top) television viewership will be the norm and air travel will go back to being a luxury.
Besides, lifting of restrictions does not signal a return to the normalcy of our pre-Covid-19 lives. It is rather the beginning of a new normal — a way of being that minimises the risks of the virus but allows us to live and earn our living, A new normal, which cycles between easing of restrictions along with aggressive public health measures when the disease wanes, and the application of restrictions when new outbreaks occur.
Predictably, the pandemic fear has been afflicted by panic and hysteria. Whereby, people dread the worst is at hand. The time is ripe for a medical emergency. Our immediate future will be a combination of “the hammer and the dance” — hammer of successive lockdowns followed by digital dances in which one uses surveillance and testing to find and control outbreaks.
Crisis time calls for togetherness as we head into a cautious, rather than a brave, new world — with Orwellian overtones. We must have courage and take a rational view at known facts and act accordingly. Time to lockout our fears and fix them, we have to there is no option. Towards that end we need ‘Effective Emotional Intelligence’ and care-mongering. What gives?