A day after the Maharashtra government imposed a lockdown in the state, a user on Twitter expressed his dismay over the state government’s decision of prohibiting the sale of ‘non-essentials products’. The Twitter user’s frustrations were eerily similar to that of thousands of citizens who believe that it’s not possible to equitably decide what is essential and what is not.
The fact remains that ‘essential’ is a highly subjective term, which would vary vastly from person to person. For a young worker living away from home, a pressure cooker may be as essential to him as a strip of paracetamol. Similarly, for a person working from home whose laptop charger stopped working, a charger would be THE essential product.
People on average interact with a vast number of products in their daily lives. These range from electronics, to household goods, to home appliances to décor and dozens of other miscellaneous categories. While the general understanding may prescribe that people ought to follow a minimalist lifestyle in times of crisis – living by just groceries, vegetables and medicines – it is hardly sustainable in today’s work-from-home and live-from-home time. The abrupt lifestyle disruptions caused due to Covid-19 and lockdowns are hard to live and adjust to, however, what makes it even more difficult is when products needed by people suddenly become inaccessible to them.
The policy practice of segmenting goods and prohibiting ‘non-essential products’ often results in hoarding prior to ‘announcements’, it creates citizen anxiety and often gives rise to surreal black markets. At one point in the early days of the national lockdown last year, there were reports of gym equipment being sold at astronomical prices in the black market, because of its unavailability through regular outlets. Similar was the case for a number of other products which fell under the category of ‘non-essential’ products.
Therefore, the solution to ensuring peaceful and effective lockdowns would be to move away from the practice of segmenting goods as ‘essential' and 'non-essential’ and maintaining a focus on strategizing on safe access to all products. Our country is battling with an unprecedented second wave of Covid, and we may see a repeat of lockdown – as we are seeing already in some states. Having learned from our experience of last year, we need to identify technologies and measures that can safely insulate various processes of the supply chain for e-commerce and retailers, and ensure that all products can reach the consumers safely.
To begin with the case of mom-and-pop retailers: all types of retail shops should continue operating, while strictly prohibiting in-shop sales during the lockdown. The retailers may be encouraged to partner with hyper-local delivery services or leverage their own shop’s personnel to home-deliver the products to consumers while practising contactless and cashless deliveries.
This would allow retailers to safely continue serving their longstanding customers, and enable them to sustain their livelihoods. It’s important to be cognizant of the fact that retailers bore the economic brunt of the lockdowns last year, and are yet to see a complete recovery. Therefore, another lockdown causing disruption to their sales is an unaffordable scenario for a number of retailers. By practising regular sanitization of inventory products, pre-delivery health scans of delivery personnel, and abiding by cashless and contactless deliveries, we can allow safe continuity for retailers amid the second wave.
Furthermore, in the case of e-commerce, operators and supply-chain managers have already implemented strict measures – from warehouses to delivery – to ensure that neither the products nor the delivery personnel ends up becoming a vector of the virus. These measures include sanitization drives at the warehouses, checking vitals of personnel involved in handling products, automated production lines to reduce human interaction, providing masks and sanitisers for delivery personnel, removing cash-on-delivery options etc.
In this new post-Covid reality, our notions of essential and non-essential products have vastly changed. As we work, study and live from home, our dependence on electronics, home appliances, mobiles, laptops and do-it-from-home goods have also increased massively. In this new environment, it’s difficult to conventionally classify what is essential and what is not.
Rather than spending our energies on segmenting products, the government should look towards working with the retailer and e-commerce industry and laying down and notifying Covid-compliant guidelines which ensure safe access to all products. This would allow us to reduce the risk of infections and protect lives and livelihoods in India, amid the second or following waves of the pandemic. The government of India has rightly given an important role to the newly created Department of Logistics, and this should be a priority agenda for them.
(Davinder Sandhu is Sr Advisor, World Bank, and former Director, PMO. Views expressed are personal.)
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