A year after a strict lockdown was imposed by the centre to rein in the spread of COVID-19, most of the country is staring at a second wave of the deadly virus that has taken more than one lakh sixty two thousand lives across the country. Over the last 24 hours, the country also witnessed the single largest daily spike since October 2020, when as many as 81,456 cases reported by the Union Health Ministry for April 1 with Mumbai city alone hitting 8,646 cases in a day.
States like Maharashtra that has seen the highest spike in cases have already hinted at possible steps towards a second lockdown to control the rising cases. But domain experts dealing with the economy, public health and labour rights have raised objections and insist that it would be better to take non-coercive measures like mandatory wearing of masks and vaccination to control the pandemic.
Speaking to BOOM's Govindraj Ethiraj on the futility of lockdowns, Ajay Shah, Research Professor of Business at the Jindal Global Business School said, "So, even the uncertainty that tomorrow there can be a lockdown is a cost and it has an adverse implication upon the economic outlook. So, in my ideal world, I would advocate thoughtful, intelligent, careful measures rather than blunt measures. And I would encourage the authorities to go public as quickly as possible and say there will be no more lockdowns because that will increase everybody's confidence."
This sentiment was also echoed by Rajiv Khandelwal, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Aajeevika, a labour rights organisation. Khandelwal said that lockdowns are probably successful in countries and societies that have a strong social protection, wage protection kind of programs, which is not the case with India. "I'm particularly talking about daily wage earners, people in the informal spaces, in informal markets, the construction workers, manufacturing sector workers, service sector workers that have only just got back. And I think we must not enter, you know, kind of push them back onto a scenario from which they will never recover," said Khandelwal.
Full transcript of the discussion with Ajay Shah and Rajiv Khandelwal:
Govindraj Ethiraj: So here we are again looking at the potential lockdown. How are you reading it?
Ajay Shah: I would like to think about two things. The first is that the lockdown experience of 2020 was not so great. With the benefit of hindsight, everything is easier with 2020 hindsight, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it exacted a toll on the economy, upon confidence. There is some evidence about excess deaths and the Sero-prevalence Survey data shows that actually it did not do that well on impacting on the spread of the disease. So, I am not excited about the gains that we got from the lockdown.
The second thing that we should think about is that this is not the India of March 2020. We are standing here one year later and the virus has actually spread quite a bit. There is significant sero prevalence in large parts of the country. A small vaccination program has begun.
So, actually we are holding a better hand of cards today than we were one year ago. and in this I would emphasise that the data is not quite comparable. When a lot of poor people got sick last year, they didn't get tested. In the official testing data, it sounds like there was a modest amount of disease whereas today the disease is reaching rich people and rich people are more likely to get tested. So, what you would call a surge in the data, I actually think is not a fair depiction because actually things were worse last year than narrated in the data because when we go into the Sero-prevalence Survey, we always found dramatically more disease progression as compared with what the testing data appeared to convey.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Rajiv what are your early thoughts on this ? We seem to be veering around to a lockdown even while fully knowing what a lockdown did last time because in many ways we don't know what else to do.
Rajiv Khandelwal: You know from where I am and from what I'm seeing, I would strongly argue against a lockdown. You know, lockdowns are probably successful in countries and societies that have a strong social protection, wage protection kind of programs, which we do not. The experience of lockdown, especially the first three to four months last year was harrowing for not just the people who were walking on the highways, but for those who came back to villages and waited it out to go back to cities. Now, we're at a point right now, where people have just only just gotten back to work and you know, they have to make good their losses for the entire year. They are barely kind of, they are not at the same wage levels that they were earning earlier. Many have run up enormous amounts of debts.
The social protection, the social assistance, financial assistance that was provided was very inadequate, was very erratic and we cannot be in a situation again where people are forced to go without wages for any length of time. Okay, and I'm particularly talking about daily wage earners, people in the informal spaces, in informal markets, the construction workers, manufacturing sector workers, service sector workers that have only just got back. And I think we must not enter, you know, kind of push them back onto a scenario from which they will never recover. I would strongly argue against that. Our systems just do not support a severe kind of a measure like lockdown
Govindraj Ethiraj: CMIE Data did say almost a 120 million jobs were lost. Of course, most of those jobs did come back, also suggesting the nature of the informal economy. So, if you were to put yourself in the other side, from a public health point of view, the same people whose jobs we are trying to protect we're also trying to protect their lives and the fact that if cases increased dramatically and more people are sick, then the Health System does not have the ability to absorb it..?
Rajiv Khandelwal: That's where I think we need to make more Investments, you know, we need much greater vaccination, you know, we need we need to escalate that effort very rapidly and like Ajay said, we are not in the same situation today, you know, the Sero prevalence is already much higher. It is easier to, you know, protect people from a massive surge. What we are going through is possibly temporary and I would say that we should just max out on vaccinations and ensure that the last mile kind of the population is receiving it and not getting you know, entry barriers are not placed before them and there was some discussion about even conducting door-to-door, which I would actually support given the kind of situation that our workers are usually in. For them accessing public health facilities is not very easy. I would also argue strongly for improving public health systems in urban areas that workers have already reached.
Actually, the situation is better in rural areas. You know, the Sero prevalence is lower. It was never as high as the Urban areas and I would say that in migrant sensitive, dense clusters where rural migrants have reached cities, that's where we need to improve our health delivery systems and they continue to be where they were. In fact, they're even worse because there is, still they are under-resourced. That's not where, you know, typically the vaccination drives are being amplified. They are still being amplified in the more core kind of urban centres, at least from our experience and cities like Ahmedabad and Surat, you know, the outlying areas where there are large populations of workers living in the open, living on pavements, living under flyovers or inside factories. That's not very vaccination is happening. We need to escalate that and not kind of turn to lockdown as a solution. I would say.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Right. Okay, so we need to escalate the administration of vaccines, but that also brings us to the question of do we have enough vaccines? Ajay, you had argued a few months ago that one public policy response could be to have very very sharp and select and specific lockdowns. Is that something that you still hold?
Ajay Shah: So, as the experience of the last year has demonstrated, it is not very useful to think of the Republic of India as a unit because this is a vast territory and conditions are extremely diverse in different parts of the country or even inside Bombay, Mulund is different from Bandra and so on. So, we should be thoughtful. We should apply medicine where it is useful in a balanced and judicious way and we should use low-cost tools.
For example, I would be far more comfortable with a greater push in favour of using masks. Masks are an effective public health strategy, they deliver results and the first port of call that if you're willing to use state power, you should be using masks. The second port of call in my opinion, if you want to use state power is high density gatherings, which are basically temples, weddings, movie theatres, clubs, nightclubs, bars. Okay. So those are high density congregations. Yeah, there could be a case saying that we should use state power and interfere with those.
But most important I would always reiterate, the most useful thing that the Government can do is to produce better data and disseminate information. Okay people in Bandra East should know what is the attack rate in Bandra East, which is, what is the percentage of people who are actively spreading the disease in Bandra East as opposed to Bandra West and so on so that each local neighbourhood can make their own decisions. Let's not think in terms of blunt tools that go have a very large impact all over the country and are much more disruptive. Let's be surgical. Let's use the local thinking, local precautions. Let communities talk to each other and think about what you want to do.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Right. So, Rajiv, Ajay is referring to suburbs of Mumbai, I know you're based in Udaipur. Now, if there were to be a lockdown, would migrant labour would be better prepared as part of the reaction the last time was out of fear and uncertainty, not knowing what's going to happen and so on and therefore many of them tried to go back to their villages. Maybe that could be different ?
Rajiv Khandelwal: You know, there is already some talk about lockdown coming into play, into force and at just this time when people have come back to the rural homes during Holi, there is, they are waiting it out. For example, where I am, most workers migrate to Gujarat and they are waiting it out to see if Gujarat will introduce lockdowns. It probably will not introduce lockdowns, but it'll certainly introduce restrictions on movement, you know, which is at the border--there is all kinds of COVID reports being demanded, which is not a cheap kind of, you know, thing to obtain. For an average worker, you know, it still costs between Rs. 500 to 800 and that's not a good way to inhibit, to prevent people from, you know, acting responsibly. I would say that in preparation, they will probably have better transportation.
CThey will probably have; they would have learned from the experience of last year, if they were to get back but there would be no preparation in terms of their livelihood. They will not have a second choice back in rural areas to see through a period of no earnings or no wages or no access to ration and so on, if for any length of time the lockdown is introduced. So, I don't think that preparation is any better than last year's, you know, financially people will suffer as much as they did last year.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Okay, and that's an important point to note. Ajay, what's your sense? I mean economically, if you were to now look at the last four quarters and one year, I know we've recovered, the economy has recovered, most of the informal sector jobs have come back, formal sector job losses still remain high. So, what's your sense in terms of where we are today in our ability, economically to take another shock or mini shocks, if across the country, that were to be the case?
Ajay Shah: So, I think there's quite a bit of economic stress. There are many personal loans, which have enjoyed moratoriums that people will have to start repaying. Similarly, for many firms, there have been debt moratoriums and sooner or later that process has to end. The IBC process was suspended and I think it's a wise decision by the government that we're going to get back to IBC. While the number of jobs is indeed only slightly behind pre-pandemic conditions, we have to look at this in the context that the number of persons working has been about stable for a long time now, from about 2015 now, while there has been population growth. So actually, the economy is not growing enough to absorb the growing workforce.
The working-age population has been growing and economic growth is not doing well in absorbing the population. Particularly in vulnerable subsets of the population, most notably women, things are not good that a lot of women have lost their jobs, they have not got back their jobs. So, I think that this is a difficult time in the economy. We should be doing all we can to improve the confidence of private people to build a business and invest and commit to taking interest in building a business and growing an organization in this country. So, even the uncertainty that tomorrow there can be a lockdown is a cost and it has an adverse implication upon how the economic outlook fairs. So, in my ideal world, I would advocate thoughtful, intelligent, careful measures rather than blunt measures . And I would encourage the authorities to go public as quickly as possible and say there will be no more lockdowns because that will increase everybody's confidence.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Rajiv the Government, once it became clear what the damage, the social and economic damage of the imposition of the lockdown was particularly on people in their life, set out on doing many things including creating, you know as a sort of net for migrant workers, databases. Where are we on all of that ?
Rajiv Khandelwal: It's still very, I would say it's still very superficial. Okay, there's a lot of random data collection. There's a lot of skill mapping and enumeration without a very clear outcome. We do not still have programs in place that will protect wages, that will universalise public services in cities, that will ensure you know, that legalities are available to workers who lost wages during the lockdown period, that will ensure that social security is widely available. The core issues that trouble or that jeopardise the conditions of informal workers in the country, those have yet to be addressed.
What has instead happened is a lot of, I would say, poor data collection without any clear kind of a goal and that too is meant, it is not very clear to people why all this data is being collected and several states have launched that. There are now portals of collecting data on migrant workers in order to track and to ensure that they are able to find jobs and so on. None of this is going to work, Govind because you know, this will actually peter out quite quickly because the economy gets back to business as usual pretty soon, it will restore where it was and urban services, rural distress will remain where they were and none of that remains, you know on high on the agenda, on concrete agenda.
There are also kind of policy statements now from various quarters and I think all of these will need a lot of structural kind of changes on the ground. They need to be made operable and not just be rhetorical kind of statements about protecting migrant workers' rights and migrant workers, we potentially need to focus on two things, which is ensuring formalisation and ensuring universalisation, which means that everybody must be able to access services and the informal should move to formal which means that their wages should be protected, their social security must be insured. Without that, it is only, we will repeat the pandemic was finally only an application of what already existed. Until that changes. I don't think the conditions of migrant workers will change.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Right. So just if I can get a one-line sum up from both of you. So Rajiv you are saying lockdown or no lockdown?
Rajiv Khandelwal: No lockdown, absolutely not a lockdown.
Govindraj Ethiraj: Okay. Great. Ajay?
Ajay Shah: Am not in support of a lockdown. It would be desirable if announcements are made that there will be no lockdown, if that is indeed the path they are going and it would be really great to do better on vaccination.
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