By DM Deshpande
The previous two lock downs that were undertaken in India were already the longest and toughest in the world. Now comes the third lock down for two more weeks albeit with some relaxations.
Clearly, there is a shift in public discourse and policy thrust from saving lives to livelihoods. The threat and risk to life has receded considerably. Two successive lock downs nationwide have given ample time to the government to ramp up testing, hospital beds, ventilators and PPE’s. Though the virus spread curve has not been flattened, the doubling rate (the rate at which numbers of those tested positive increases by 100 per cent) has gone up smartly.
India has one of the lower mortality rates related to Covid 19. The recovery rate too, is significantly higher than all the western nations which have the best possible health care infrastructure. The government has been able to handle the situation arising out of this novel pandemic in a decisive way and has rightly earned the admiration and respect for the same from all over the globe.
However, relaxations announced in lockdown 3.0 seem to have created confusion and made implementation more complicated.
While the central plan appears to have gone in to great details as per the colours of zones, on the ground it has only created coloured mess. The government should have concentrated only on red zones comprising of hot spots and containment zones.
Retail is only partially opened up; hence, manufacturing units can not keep stockpiling adding to costs. There are complex inter-linkages in production, transportation, logistics, distribution and labour. Even in a pandemic situation, therefore, effort should be lesser controls and restrictions and clearer communication to all stakeholders.
Time and again, it has been stressed that lock downs are not a solution; they are meant to buy time. Going by the experience worldwide the way to go about is testing (and testing more), tracing and isolating the affected persons either in public or private places.
There is not much of credible data on financial losses due to Covid 19 lock down that has caused massive disruption. US is reported to be losing US $16 to US $19 billion on every single day of lock down. According to Niti Aayog, about two-three per cent of the GDP will be lost, presuming wider relaxations happen in mid-May and a semblance of normalcy is restored in the next 3 to 4 months.
Going by the chaotic conditions prevailing now, losses may touch five per cent of GDP. Both the World Bank and the IMF estimate that Indian GDP growth rate will be less than two per cent this fiscal. For a nation that has a potential to grow at least 7 to 8 per cent per annum, this would be catastrophic simply because a large numbers of poor will be pushed below the poverty line.
Financial Times has done an interesting study by trying to capture excess mortality in March and April ( that is, how many more people have died in these two months compared to previous five years during the same months) in Europe. Overall, it found that the excess mortality rate jumped up 49 per cent. Not all of this was owing to Covid 19 which accounted for only half of the excess mortality.
This is surprising since most of the world has come to a standstill deaths on account of accidents should have come down to zero. Since criminals too are locked down, murders and other crimes too must have dropped significantly.
While in Belgium it was 60 per cent in Netherlands it was 51 per cent. How come the excess mortality rate was just 12 per cent in Sweden? Of the countries that are greatly affected in Europe, Sweden was the only country that steadfastly refused to lock down instead, it relied more on social distancing norms, sanitization and the like.
So far, we do not know how many people have died in India due to non-COVID reasons. ICMR will do well to collect data that will be crucial for further policy action.
Excess mortality might have been quite high in India. If that turns out be true then our prolonged lock down would have neither saved lives nor livelihoods. During the lock down, people have been reluctant to go to hospitals for fear of coming in to contact with COVID-19 affected patients.
There are reports of some hospitals turning away non- COVID patients because of lack of facilities or doctors. Going by WHO estimates, there are 25 million people suffering from TB and it is responsible for 4,40,000 deaths every year. Malaria is estimated to kill another 20,000 people with 15 million affected by the disease.
In sum, lock down has to be eased and eased quickly barring of course hotspots or containment zones. Public transport should be started with social distancing norms. Therefore, more buses and trains need to be run, not less. Similarly, shops and businesses should be open for more hours, not less. Spending should not be curbed as some states are trying to do; they are sure to score self goals. India has no better option than to resume economic activity at the earliest.
The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.