The Cabinet Secretary, Rajiv Gauba, did well to dispel rumours that the 21-day lockdown of the country in order to slow down the spread of Covid-19 infections, will be extended. Assuming the trajectory of new cases starts showing a flattening curve, the costs of extending the lockdown will far exceed the benefits.
Let us be clear about what the primary purpose of the lockdown was: it was to slow down the spread of the disease and give time to governments, both Centre and states, to be better prepared on all fronts to deal with the fallout of rising infections and a drastically slowing economy.
It was not intended to end the pandemic once for all. That won’t happen. With mortality rates of 2 per cent or thereabouts, Covid-19 is not going to be life-threatening, no matter how much it spreads in the community; but extending the lockdown nation-wide will deal a death-blow to the livelihoods of millions of Indians which cannot be met through mere cash transfers, and free food or monetary accommodation to businesses which want to retrench or close down.
So, here are the new goalposts: the complete lockdown must end on 14 April as scheduled; at best, the lockdown can be restricted to some highly-infected zones, and that too for just about two weeks more.
After that, there can be no lockdowns.
In the two weeks remaining, here are the 10 things the government must focus on before ending the lockdown.
First, assuming some cities or districts may remain more affected by Covid-19 than the rest, the Covid-free zones must first be released from lockdowns. Even in the high-infection areas, plans must be made to revive economic activity with greater social education and precautionary measures.
If, for example, Mumbai city or Kasaragod district have high rates of infections, the next two weeks must be spent on creating social awareness and rules for the revival of normal economic activity, so that their local economies do not simply fold up. The macroeconomy depends on the revival of these micro-economies.
Second, all states and all districts must have a medical centre where those needing hospitalisation can be admitted, and those who don’t need hospitalisation can be asked to home quarantine for the required period.
Odisha’s creation of 1,000-bed Covid-dedicated hospitals are worthy of emulation. Over the next two weeks, such make-shift facilities must reach all major districts. Over-dependence on the army or police forces to provide these resources should be avoided.
This time, we also have to ensure that those who are quarantined are not left to fend for themselves for basic needs; they must be supplied with essentials at their doorsteps, and/or through community kitchens where physical distancing to prevent further spread of the infection are enforced.
The tracking of those quarantined must be driven by Aadhaar identifications so that local, state and central governments know precisely who needs help, and who must be monitored.
Third, the police force must be well-briefed and sensitised to make sure that they don’t stop essential services and key workers from doing their jobs.
This is what is happening right now in many cities and district headquarters, where the new powers of the police to stop people from moving around is being misused due to the lack of a proper identification system for those who need to move around.
After the lockdown ends, and more and more people return to work, the police should know only whom to stop.
They can’t use blunt instruments and halt all people movements in the name of lockdown.
Fourth, a two- to four-week plan to get transport services up and running should involve starting a few flights, trains and bus services on important inter-city and intra-city routes first, but after proper precautions to prevent overcrowding.
This means we can’t have millions of people stuffing themselves in public transport immediately. Transport vehicles must be sanitised every day, and passenger movements must be limited in the initial weeks.
Fares should be allowed to rise. Ola and Uber should be allowed to operate, but only under strict monitoring and compulsory sanitisation measures.
Free sanitisers can be given to drivers at state expense. Fares must be allowed to rise to reflect the new, higher costs of operating clean and safe vehicles.
Any loans of Uber-Ola drivers must be rescheduled, and interest for the period of two months waived.
Private vehicles must, of course, be given unrestricted freedom of movement, and advised to keep their vehicles sanitised at all times.
By 15 May, India should aim to achieve over 50 per cent of normal transport movements, but with new safety and cleanliness standards. Full return to normality can take another couple of months, but would depend on how fast or how slowly Covid-19 spreads and herd immunity is achieved.
Fifth, companies and offices that wish to start work must be facilitated to do so, both by asking them to provide safe transport and clean food for employees.
Those employees who can afford to operate from home should be encouraged to do so at no loss of pay till the pandemic ends.
All businesses, big or small, must be asked to provide back pay to employees during the period of lockdown, and the government can give some of this money as interest-free loans.
Sixth, goods and services tax (GST) rates should be cut in order to boost consumption. A swift shift to the 5-15-25 per cent rate structure should be attempted by the GST Council, so that rates not only come down, but also get rationalised.
Seventh, states must be compensated in full — and urgently — for any resultant GST revenue losses. While this will push up the central fiscal deficit, this is a lesser evil than having bankrupt states that do little to revive economic activity.
Additionally, the fiscal deficit limit for states can be temporarily raised to 3.5 per cent in 2020-21, or as long as the Covid-related slowdown persists.
Eighth, an urban version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme must be announced with 100 days of guaranteed work for all young unemployed people in the 20-30 age group.
All companies must be incentivised to take on apprentices at low cost in the next one year.
The best way of skilling people is by giving them apprenticeships in an actual work environment and not necessarily through classroom training.
Ninth, whatever medical and protective equipment — hazmat suits, goggles, masks, sanitisers, ventilators, etc — needs to be imported, manufactured or ordered should be done now, and indigenous capabilities developed where imports are not possible or too expensive.
Some of this is already being done, but India must make sure that by 14 April, nothing is left to chance and a whimsical supply chain.
No doctor, nurse or medical support staff should feel that he or she is forced to take unnecessary personal risks to maintain the healthcare system.
Tenth, communicate, communicate, communicate. Everybody, from the Prime Minister to Chief Ministers to ministers and mayors and officials at various levels must be asked to communicate with the people on what to expect, what to do, whom to call for help, where to go to get tested, and how to access official help in kind or cash.
Covid-19 provides an excellent opportunity to all public servants to actually serve the public, and all civil servants to become truly civil to the people who put them in their jobs.
Our Covid-19 challenge must be seen as a transformative experience. We have two weeks of the remaining lockdown period to prepare ourselves for it.