Emerging from shadows of a lockdown

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on April 15, 2020 Published on April 15, 2020

Countries have been following different paths in easing the lockdown. India has quite a few models to choose from

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended India’s lockdown by another two weeks so a quick trip to the local kirana store will remain the day’s high point. But thoughts are turning to what a post-lockdown world will be like. And it’s bizarre to say the least. “People using the lift should be encouraged to face the lift walls,” advises one Indian industry handbook.

China and a handful of other countries are stepping out onto the streets before us, so we’re getting glimpses of what the world may look like when we emerge from our houses — basically very different from the one we knew in which social-distancing will remain the norm until a vaccine arrives. That’s likely to be at least 18 months away, at the earliest.

Wuhan, where people stayed indoors for 76 days, is the best example of the post-lockdown world. Wuhan only came fully out of lockdown on April 8. One expat in the city described the alarming experience of stepping out of home for the first time as being “like a kid trying to cross the street without the parent.” Still, he added: “It’s not like the storm’s over. We still have a lot of asymptomatic cases, like silent carriers, so we have to be very vigilant. We still have to wear masks, (do) social distancing and go out just for essentials.”

The Wuhan expat pretty well sums up our immediate future. The immediate future’s going to be about how to live with a still dangerous pandemic. Let’s assume we radically reduce number of all-India new cases. The infection threat will still be there, reminding us we mustn’t shake hands or get overly close to friends or strangers. A hug? Not a chance! Air-kissing — no way. Similarly, there’ll be no big, fat weddings or other social life staples.

Modi favours a staggered relaxation of controls outside of Covid-19 disease hotspots to help daily-wagers earn a living and the rabi crop to be harvested while maintaining social distancing. And the way factories operate will also change. The Dongfeng Honda factory in Wuhan is a case in point. It opened March 11 and now has 98 per cent of its workers back. The Honda workers are at their stations 90 minutes longer than usual to make up for lost production. But new rules are in effect. Common areas are closed and stools placed far apart for workers to take a break. Wall posters remind anyone who has a temporary memory lapse about social distancing and everyone’s wearing masks and gloves.

New work rules

We can expect to see similar rules in India. An inter-office proposal circulated among some Central Government ministries where senior personnel are already back on the job suggested letting large textile, automobile and electronics factories open early provided they offer “single entry points for workers” and “sufficient” social-distancing space. The proposal said 20-25 per cent of workers should return initially in a single shift. In addition, it suggested a string of other industries including fertilisers, gems and jewellery and defence-related units be allowed to run single shifts.

The India described in these back-to-work documents is not immediately a familiar one. The documents describe a spick-and-span, sparkling clean environment in which every surface is constantly scrubbed down with disinfectant. “Contractors shall ensure safety, sanitation and distancing norms,” says the Government proposal about construction projects where workers live on the site. The industry handbook suggests all persons on the construction sites must “maintain at least two meters distance from each other.” Needless to say paan and gutka won’t be allowed, nor will spitting.

Meanwhile, hard-hit Spain is still in lockdown but is allowing limited reopening of manufacturing and construction industries. Coronavirus-battered Iran has started letting government offices, shops, factories and other businesses to reopen in a phased way, but social distancing will stay. Austria’s also permitting smaller shops to reopen. The Czechs are reopening smaller store and permitting tennis.

France, provided all goes well, aims to reopen day-care centres and schools on May 11, but many businesses, restaurants, hotels, museums and theatres will stay shut. Travellers from non-EU countries will be barred until further notice.

Singapore and Hong Kong managed to keep Covid-19 cases low thanks to widespread testing, isolating infected people and tracing and quarantining contacts. Recently though both have seen a case-load upsurge.

In response, Singapore shut schools and non-essential businesses and told people to stay home while Hong Kong closed bars and imposed restrictions on restaurants. Hong Kong public health specialist Gabriel Leung told Science magazine Hong Kong and Singapore are practising what may become the new norm globally — a “suppression and lift strategy” in which governments aim to drive down new infections, then ease curbs.

Another model for opening up gradually comes from the Kerala government which is looking at a district-by-district loosening based on extremely strict conditions. A district must have only one new Covid-19 case in the previous seven days before moving to what’s called Phase-I. To get to Phase-II the district should not have more than one case for a fortnight and only a certain number under surveillance. To get to Phase III there should be no cases in a fortnight.

Triple whammy

Still, there’s the question of how many businesses will want to reopen under current circumstances. Automobile manufacturers have been slammed by a triple whammy of a demand slowdown, the expensive conversion from BS-IV to BS-VI fuel and finally the shattering Covid-19 pandemic. Maruti Suzuki chairman RC Bhargava predicts a car-buying boom as people ditch public transit, other industry experts believe that’s overly optimistic. Similarly, in Surat, big export houses predict demand from Europe and the US will be down by 40-50 per cent.

Bill Gates says: “Even once the government is saying these activities are okay, we can’t expect the demand side to re-emerge overnight.” So restaurants will be offering takeouts. Tourism, airlines and hotels have suffered a hammer blow as nobody’s going anywhere soon. Virtual software, though, has received a big boost as shareholder, business conferences, even court hearings go online. And some people may never go back to office and will keep working from home.

Let’s go back to our Wuhan expat on what it was like to go out. “I didn't really feel that different. I still walked out with my mask. So, the only time I'm going to feel completely free is when I'll be able to go out without a mask and when it’s going to be safe to completely talk to people, hang out with people.” That’s obviously not happening anytime soon — for any of us.

Published on April 15, 2020

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