‘Lockdowns will be a cyclic process for the next 12 months in India’

Published : April 08, 2020 21:41 IST

Customers collecting free ration at a retail outlet at Kalady in Thiruvananthapuram on April 1. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Lifting of the lockdown to bring down the spread of COVID-19, easing restrictions to ensure that livelihoods are not lost, reimposing restrictions to control another spread may well become a cyclic process that will “get repeated time and again over the next 12 months” in India, according to the expert committee appointed by the Kerala government to generate suggestions and advise it on the way forward until COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

The 17-member ‘Expert Committee on Strategy for Easing Lockdown Restrictions’ headed by former Chief Secretary K.M. Abraham has recommended that people must be made well aware of this fact, and the Central and State governments should acknowledge and plan for it because “it is unlikely that infection will slow and eventually cease any time soon”.

The ideal scenario would be for the spread to be kept at a low level so that it stays below the additional capacity of the health system to handle more patients than it is designed to manage under normal circumstances by (a) keeping the number of patients low and ( b) improving capacity of the health system.

The focus on the first approach till now, using very restrictive strategies, have brought economy and life to a standstill and has hopefully made a dent on the epidemic. But this strategy cannot be maintained further as “the cure could be more expensive than the disease”, the committee said.

Therefore, any exit strategy would need to take into consideration the following key aspects at the national and State levels: (1) the likely trajectory of the epidemic over the next few weeks/months; (2) the State’s capacity to build up an effective and responsive health care system to deal with the epidemic in a few weeks or months; (3) the actual impact on the economy and the financial system of the current total lockdown and its continued extension by a few weeks/months; (4) its efficacy and above all sustainability; (5) specific impact on the poorest and most vulnerable sections given that they are likely to bear a disproportionate part of the costs; and (6) the financial capacity of the State to support the poorest sections as well as the productive economic agents in the medium to long term in the event of continued total/partial lockdown.

The committee pointed out the opinion of experts that though, given the number of fatalities, India may indeed have room for cautious optimism compared with many countries, the severity of the loss of livelihoods, large-scale hunger and economic distress, which were existing prior to the lockdown, have increased significantly. Moreover, it said, the scholarly opinion that concepts like “total lockdown, social distancing” etc., as conventionally understood in the West may have far less effectiveness in a country like India where density of population, crowded living conditions and economic realities are very different may well be true.

Hence policies/social practices appropriate to India’s realities may need to be evolved locally, rather than imposed wholesale from another context.

Given the massive loss of livelihoods, suffering and economic collapse that has come as a result of India’s strategy so far, a desired goal would be to undertake a State-wide vulnerability analysis and evolve innovative strategies for protecting the population.

“The public health impact of the mass migration of lakhs of labourers pursuant to the lockdown and their plight in makeshift camps and clusters is as yet completely unknown,” it said.

Given the near impossible task of eliminating the virus, a sound strategy would be to make people aware of the need for reducing viral load in order to get a milder disease by individual protection methods, like working from home if possible, physical distancing and hand hygiene, and alleviate the current panic and inordinate fear of the infection.

The committee says that the objectives of the lockdown withdrawal strategy it has drawn up for Kerala has several key objectives.

The health related objectives include (1) reducing the spread of the virus; (2) minimising the loss of health care professionals and maximising their safety and availability to continue the work; (3) increasing case management capacity in existing hospitals and new hospitals; (4) increasing testing to eliminate community spread; (5) ensuring access to normal health care requirements of the population; (6) maintaining normal health care capacity during the coronavirus period; and (7) maintaining public health initiatives (vaccinations, food/nutrition of children and pregnant/feeding mothers.

Its non-health related objectives were: (1) to ensure access to food and other essentials; (2) maintaining the purchasing power of community; (3) ensuring law and order; (4) maintaining open communication and social cohesion; (5) re-establishing livelihoods (opening of establishments, etc.); (6) increasing livelihood opportunities, including creating new; employment schemes; (7) facilitating return of migrant labour to their home States without spreading disease; (6) facilitating arrival of non-resident Keralites without increasing disease spread; and (7) improving public transport facilities without increasing disease spread.

Measures for economic revival

The committee has also suggested a list of strategies for implementation by the Central government for an economic revival as it believed “prolonged and stringent lockdown will lead to economic hardship, famine and law and order issues, which may in turn undermine both the lockdown and the health management objectives”.

The measures suggested include (1) a special COVID investment package to the tune of 10 per cent of GDP, over and above the expenditure announced in the Budget for massive investments in health, and health-care-related production facilities; (2) allowing States to borrow up to 5 per cent of their share of the GDP (rather that the three per cent current borrowing limit) for fiscal years 2020-21 and 2021-22; (3) a special package for MSMEs, with a credit line by the Central government for working capital through the banking system, with a moratorium of one year and repayable over 10 years at interest rate of 4 per cent (4) designing of an online credit line for businesses based on the average turnover for the last 12 months; (5) working capital cash credit loans to all current MUDRA loan borrowers and farmers who have Kisan credit cards with a default guarantee cover extended by the Union government; (6) sanctioning of one-time withdrawal of six months equivalent to the contribution of any worker to his or her EPFO account; and (7) amendments to the Indian Contract Act, 1972, for a smooth restoration of business operations during and after the shutdown period.

The report said concurrently, livelihood revival packages also need to be rolled out by which economic activity can be locally revived so as not to seriously compromise the lives and wellbeing of the poor. This should include assistance packages for both poor individuals and seriously affected segments of the economy like agriculture, fishing, tourism, hotels, health, shops and so on.

Suggestions in this respect include a special scheme for PMJDY Account holders for purchase of essential commodities; distribution of agricultural inputs to prevent supply-side breakdowns; economic revival plans to address the needs of women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and transgenders; a special economic package for migrant labour, for the 14 crore inter-State migrants who live outside their States in the country, including the 30 lakh inter-State migrants in Kerala (that make up between 20-30 per cent work force in the State); direct cash transfers to workers and citizens that should continue up to six months after the lockdown period; a lumpsum release of three months equivalent of benefits under the schemes now being implemented for old age, disabled, woman headed households, and other marginalised groups; and a wage subsidy scheme for the MSME Sector to protect employment.

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