Covid-19 continues to spread its tentacles into every corner of the world with the number of infections topping 5.4 million. Even remote places like Greenland and French Polynesia have not been immune to it. Almost every country, including even scientists at the base camp in Antarctica, have implemented some form of lockdown to combat this menace.
Solace in Statistics?
India is currently in the midst of Lockdown 4, which differs from the earlier lockdowns by providing everyone with a significant amount of leeway. Most things are allowed now, though a night curfew (7pm-7am) and a few other restrictions, including those relating to social and political assembly of people, remain in force.
Until now India has had more than 1,45,000 people who have tested positive for the virus and about 4,000 people who have reportedly died on account of it. By contrast, the United States has close to 1.6 million cases and near 98,000 deaths; things look equally bad in the United Kingdom with more than 259,000 cases and more than 37,000 deaths. In fact, compared to South Asia, Europe paints a grim picture. Moreover, if we look at the number of deaths per 100,000 people, the US is about 100 times worse and the UK about 190 times worse than India.
All kinds of biological theories are being floated to explain this difference. Then there are the statistical explanations: for instance, some have argued that fewer tests will only reveal fewer cases. Others have argued that we should treat our tests as sample (though not random) of the population, which still tells us that the rates are lower in India. But even if we have fewer cases and lower death rates – does it really matter? This is not a competition and we still do not have a cure for Covid-19.
The End of Lockdown
We have had three straight rounds of lockdowns and have managed to keep infection rates low. Now, like many other places, we are slowly in the process of rebooting the economy. To understand what has happened in the meantime, a simple analogy is useful. During summer, when you switch on the AC in your room, it soon becomes pleasant. That is what we have done—the lockdown has helped us check the infection—but it is as mechanical an outcome as the AC cooling a room. There is nothing special about it – if you switch off the AC the room will get warm again, and it is still summer outside, and the sun is blazing! The sooner we understand this the better it will be for all of us.
In general, however, we cannot stay in lockdown forever. Today it affects the daily-wage workers, in six months it will get to the IT geek. The idea of a lockdown is simply to buy time so that one can prepare for reopening on an emergency footing. In many countries, regardless of their level of preparation, governments have decided that the infection is out of control – so they might as well open up. Finally, all those fiscal packages that put money in the hands of people will not be useful if the economy is not producing goods and services. In fact, the timing of reopening is the only question, and even this seems to be rapidly becoming a moot point.
Consequently, once the lockdown ends in India, the onus of protecting our lives will be on us. No one saunters out on a hot summer afternoon in Delhi. You stay indoors as much as you can. But if you have to, you wear sunglasses, possibly some headgear and might even use protection like sunscreen. You also make sure that you keep yourself hydrated. Similarly, by opening up, the government has simply passed the burden of protection onto us, and we need to follow all the precautions we can to keep ourselves safe. Of course, staying indoors in summer is a privilege that the middle class and wealthy can afford, not the daily-wage labourers. So the same will be the case with this pandemic. It is the poor who wants the lockdown to end soon, but it is also the poor (and those in the healthcare sector) who will therefore face the brunt of this act.
While the traffic light-coloured, zone-based approach is good for presenting facts, it is not ideal for guiding social and economic interaction. Remember, in the beginning there was only one red zone – Hubei province in China, but now even places as remote as Fiji must worry about this virus. Orange can change to red in no time, and despite the best-laid plans and border closings, things can go awry. However, driving provides a good analogy for post-lockdown behavior.
The burden of protecting your life and those you love when you drive is on you – not only should you drive carefully, but you must also be willing to sacrifice good money for insurance. It is the same thing for Covid-19. First, like a good driver, it is imperative to follow all the medical advice being meted out to protect yourself. However, infectious diseases have an additional property – they impose an externality on others. In other words, your actions have consequences for others that you may not take into account. If you drive rashly, not only are you a danger to yourself, but you put the life of others at risk too. How you drive can affect the lives of others even if you do not think about it! Similarly, face masks are in fact better at protecting others from you, than they are at protecting you. Thus, in the post-lockdown pandemic world, a good citizen is like a good driver – by being careful they protect themselves and others. So be a good driver!
(Surajit Borkotokey is a Professor of Mathematics at Dibrugarh University. Sudipta Sarangi is a Professor of Economics at Virginia Tech. Views expressed are personal.)