Glimmers of hope amid the Coronavirus pandemic - can it be a wake-up call of sorts?

Nandana James Mumbai | Updated on March 20, 2020

People maintain social distancing as they line up to get on a train in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, on March 16.   -  REUTERS

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, life has become akin to a dystopian movie, with lockdowns and quarantines becoming the norm, wherein even doing a nondescript chore comes saddled with dire consequences. But, even as life is grinding to a standstill and uncertainty looms large, are there any glimmers of hope around?

Social distancing measures, which include travel restrictions and companies enforcing work-from-home, have been enforced in all countries afflicted with the coronavirus across the globe. In India too, this is becoming the norm.

But, on January 23, when China resorted to severe clampdown measures, which included the lockdown of Wuhan City ― the epicentre of the outbreak ― travel restrictions, and closure of all activities and organisations, it raised eyebrows across the globe. Even the World Health Organisation showed its scepticism initially.

But, other countries are now following suit as they grapple with this insidious, monstrous virus, with almost surreal photos emerging of otherwise bustling cities resembling ghost towns.

As the coronavirus spreads through airborne droplets released when infected people cough or sneeze, social distancing reduces the chances of getting infected.

BusinessLine spoke to various experts to gauge some of the positive implications of social distancing and work-from-home measures on the environment as well as on long-term government spending.

Vidyadhar Date, convenor of Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST, an independent forum of citizens for public transport, as well author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change: Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority, said: “The crisis created by coronavirus can teach us a number of lessons. The concept of work-from-home is gaining ground because of it. It is good for a section of employees and will reduce the need for travel. Car trips can definitely be reduced this way, helping improve air quality as well as create more road space and a better ambience.”

One can certainly feel the difference in the quality of life, Date, who is also a civic activist, noted. “There is an improvement in Mumbai ― it is now easier to walk around, there is less traffic, less pollution, less noise. There is definitely a case for lesser travel.”

The coronavirus is helping reduce air pollution in affected areas, with air pollution having reduced by nearly 26 per cent across China and Italy, said Akshay Heblikar, Director of Eco-Watch, a Bangalore-based NGO which works towards environmental conservation. Even though estimates are not available right now for India ― as the lockdown situation has just begun ― Heblikar said that there could be at least 10-15 per cent reduction in air pollution if the lockdown continues till the end of March.

“The issue now is the rebooting of economic activity after the coronavirus gets under control… There will be a huge increase in economic rebuilding, as the economy has faced a severe threat from the shutdown,” he added. And this may offset the environmental benefits that the lockdown is bringing about, he cautioned.

This situation can be a wake-up call of sorts for India to address pertinent issues, especially concerning health and education, said Ashok Datar, economist, transport expert and chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network.

For instance, even in the case of the current coronavirus situation, not enough testing is being done, whilst there are also concerns about the quality of quarantine facilities, he said.

“Today, we are discussing a lot of wrong subjects. We are not discussing the right subjects at all ― like how to improve the quality of education and how to improve the quality of health services. If we really get shaken by the coronavirus situation, I would look at some positive things, like how should we try to look at it from the very basics ― start looking at health, education from the fundamental point of view, rather than the superficial level,” said Datar.

This crisis can also prompt us to consider opting for a sensible transport infrastructure, rather than just “showy, glamorous and superfluous infrastructure”, he said. This can also be possible due to the inevitable losses that public transport undertakings would be saddled with due to the pandemic, which can possibly prompt a re-think of the way things are done, said Datar.

For instance, a lot of grand infrastructure projects that are undertaken currently are devoid of any cost-benefit analysis and such a cost-benefit analysis should be made available in the public domain, he said. There is a need to have in place a good performance accountability mechanism of infrastructure projects, which takes into consideration factors like cost analysis, usership, and the need for such projects, among others, he added.

Refraining from grand projects and resorting to projects with measurable impact is the need of the hour, he said. For example, instead of pumping crores of rupees into construction of metros, bus lanes can be devised in cities, and more money can be put into maintenance of roads rather than construction of new roads, he said.

Date echoed similar views. There is also a case for proper land use planning so that workplaces can be near the place of residence, said Date. Earlier, most textile mill workers in Mumbai lived close to the mills. Now, with their places of residence having been taken up by corporates, the workers are living in far-flung areas, necessitating long commutes, he explained.

“The concept of the workplace near the residence is being implemented in only some upper class areas for information technology jobs. Smart cities are being planned with this concept. But, it will benefit mainly the upper classes. It has to be implemented for the ordinary people. That is why cities have to be inclusive in the real sense ― they must provide space for ordinary people to live close to their jobs,” he said. Earlier, there used to be servant quarters in some residential buildings as well, he pointed out. This may not be feasible anymore, but solutions can be found, he said.

The real victims of the coronavirus crisis are ordinary workers, he said.“They will starve if they do not go to their place of work as they cannot work from home. This problem can be solved to some extent by giving them paid leave, as in the case of domestic workers,” he said.

Even as we are beleaguered with this health crisis, hope remains. For instance, Date said that a kind-hearted retired professor told him that she has asked her domestic help not to report for work till the crisis blows over, and that she will not cut her salary.

Published on March 20, 2020

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