The deadly Coronavirus outbreak has led to a pandemonium in India and caused tremendous uncertainty among people from all sections of society. While the nationwide lockdown announced last month and extended earlier this week could definitely halt the spread of the infection, the plan to execute it was ill-conceived, jeopardising the lives of the down-trodden.
It breaks "social contract" through the practice of social distancing. In other words, abolishing "social contact" at the expense of "social contract" — necessary for a modern economy to sustain — could have an adverse impact. As Benjamin Franklin said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Whether the lockdown should be for 21 days or more needs a prior plan of sustenance of the people, especially at the bottom rung of the ladder. The fear during the fight against COVID-19 will always be there even if the battle is won in near long-term. Scars will be there even if the wounds are healed.
Nevertheless, the trade-offs of life -- as often the economists talk about in basic principles -- need to be balanced. The balance in mind is between epidemiological predictions based on mathematical models and the economic predictions based on granular geospatial data of spread of infection thanks to the sophisticated Machine Learning or Data Science. The crisis unearthed many questions on multiple fronts, viz., environmental degradation, moral and ethical questions, recession, or even demise of the existing system. All are interlinked.
Coming to think of India -- declaring in 3 hours' notice to lock down for 3 weeks -- is the significant one in the world for several special reasons. Now, the idea of lighting torches or lamps at 9 pm for 9 minutes on April 5th (also 5+4=9) is a novel approach for shovelling off novel COVID. Number ‘9’— a Motzkin number — is a symbol of initiation and wisdom.
However, as Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, USA, stated, “We do not make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline”. It seems that we are making the ‘deadline’ for an unknown species that is neither living nor non-living.
Without wasting the 'buying-out' period of 21 days (2+1=3, whose square is 9) for preparation, it is wise to mend the rough ends. First step is to eradicate devils in our mind. Thinking about the recent riots in India -– instigated by doppelgangers -- which killed so many people, and put others in a stressful situation, we see the grave impact in terms of loss of lives. However, in India, a nation where religious bigotry and politically manoeuvred riots kill countrymen, the deadly and poisonous ‘virus of virulent religion’ transects a society meant to stand as one. It spreads the virus of fear like a disease.
This virus erupted out of the long-drawn illness of distortionary politics and going beyond control. The source of this virus is human psychology. Treating this virus for curing the social disharmony and hatred needs right sets of policies, right group of people (as doctors needed for health) to diagnose the root cause, right facilities (alike healthcare and mental care for treating ailments), and the right investment in people, and above all, right sort of approach to address the core concern (genuineness). This is not happening. It’s now becoming an epidemic of religious fanaticism — the virus of religion — engulfing us.
Secondly, people could die for many reasons — martyrs for freedom struggle, dying for a noble cause, dying due to terminal disease, dying out of the pandemic -- beyond their control. The recent pandemic of Coronavirus is causing deaths to many, spreading to 209 countries and territories so far, when this article was written. Cases are skyrocketing. Every nation is beefing up their health care efforts and pushing it to their utmost capacity to save people from the crisis, and control the loss of lives.
No panacea except the timely testing and proper treatment at the right moment, by the right group of people, in the right place with appropriate medical facilities. To avoid death, one needs to build up such facilities so that the pandemic does not take heavy tolls on lives. When COVID-19 is taking its toll, scientists and professionals should be engaged in deep research to counter the ill effects and save people from death, while in India, the death occurs due to self-germinated virus of the destruction of the social fabric.
Third, if Corona spreads beyond control, will India be able to tame. With improper healthcare, inadequate infrastructure, dilapidated medical facilities, lack of trained professionals, scarcity of health facilities, a sudden spurt in death due to COVID-19 will run havoc among the citizens. Under normal circumstances itself, people suffer from lack of education, health care and other life-saving facilities. In this critical juncture, the situation will have dire consequences. When the whole world is preparing for fighting against a pandemic caused by wild animals, fighting for religious, sectarian politics breeding animosity is abominable.
Without any dogma or misplaced agenda, the need of the hour is to concentrate attention on COVID-19 and focus on taming the virulent virus that is spreading rapidly, rather than being engaged in germinating the poisonous virus of divisiveness and hatred, and spreading it among the residents, and practising the magic number game to dazzle.
Fourth, for inclusive sustainable development and shared prosperity, one needs to go beyond caste, creed, and religion and become impartial and visionary. Good politics needs good vision, and good vision is imperative in bad times. Otherwise, India might have to embrace apocalypse now — due to threat of pandemic Corona as well as the death of despair from the unholy muddle of infighting, which is a disaster for reviving the Indian economy on a tailspin. For that, any kind of politics — left or right — should be set aside. We need to be neutral, objective, and honest without being myopic.
Fifth, it should not be abrupt without prior analysis of support plans. At this juncture, many have lost optimism as conflicts, terrorism, environmental damage, economic inequality, and rise of populism or shallow nationalism, etc. wield bad sceptre over the world, and now the deadly virus is taking a heavy toll of lives.
The government should give due emphasis to creating supportive health-care plans and infrastructure for well-conceived changes in society with human dignity, fairness, sustainability, and non-violence. When the informal sector’s share is so high and most of the people are migrating from rural to urban for daily wages, or even long-term livelihood, the impact of mitigation efforts is highly debatable. The government needs to strike a balance between the trade-offs between collateral damage of lockdown, containment, and the economic fallout without socio-economic disasters.
Sixth, in order to make it a success, it needs cooperation from both sides -- the citizens, and those in charge of ensuring their better protection via healthcare infrastructure development -- so that the economic losses incurred during 21 days' lockdown is minimized by supporting the underprivileged, wage earners, and the poor who dies many deaths every day thanks to their hand-to-mouth existence. The government should use this time-period to boost economic support for the vulnerable, initiate a new form of Private-Public-Partnerships for provision of safety protocol, health care facilities, equipment, and stimulating the economy with proper support via elasticity in policy-making by balancing epidemiological and economic trade-off.
Preparing the ground during this 21-day lockdown to achieve low fatality via command and control is effective only if this disease control results in a resurgence of economic activities with cluster control, testing, surveillance system using artificial intelligence, drones, to process granular geo-coded data for spatial infection tracking. All these will enable us to get causal inference via impact evaluation and help us revamp the healthcare system along with the economy where the loss of workforce will severely jolt the human capital.
The stimulus package will work in the very short run because this crisis will disrupt the supply side also due to the implosion in the world economy. Hence, measures chalked out above are necessary as a supply-side shock cannot be fully handled via a demand-management policy in the end. We need a mixture of policies without any straitjacket.
This kind of approach is quintessential not only for now, but also to establish the Indian economy on a high trajectory in future, and making her a strong nation. This is for our ‘own’ national interest. Just as we need to stick together despite being quarantined to inhibit the spread of COVID-19, the same way we need to stand ‘united’ when the evils of separatism divide us apart. Like ‘Aladdin’ who rubbed the ‘Genie’ out of the bottle to roll the carpet, how the ritualistic ‘9’-magic lamp could ignite hopes remains to be seen.
(Gouranga Das is a Professor of Economics at Hanyang University, Seoul, South Korea.)