How to manage Covid 2.0

Amitabh Kundu | Updated on April 19, 2021

Another exodus of migrant workers to their home-towns must be prevented   -  PTI

As far as possible a lockdown should not be reimposed but a strong decentralised system of healthcare must be built

Experts in India and elsewhere are not sure when the Covid pandemic is likely to peak. As saving lives and preventing possible economic disaster are critical now, achieving 11 per cent growth in the the current year has become a peripheral issue. The sustainability of the current medi-care and support systems is being challenged by non-availability of critical drugs and equipment, besides the deteriorating finances and diminished revenue collections of State governments.

The key concern for the next couple of months is saving human life. Even as the pandemic enters the second wave, posing a risk to millions, healthcare services remain inadequate and unsatisfactory. Also, the threat is equally serious for people not having enough purchasing power to buy food and other essentials for survival; only 15 per cent of the country’s workforce has income/pension security. Migrants are already queuing up at railway and bus stations, to return to their home-towns.

As States gravitate towards lockdowns, in the hope of breaking infection cycle, the side-effects of the shutting are problematic. Apart from creating a wave of homeward-bound, panic-stricken migrant workers across multiple State borders, the law-enforcement apparatus does not differentiate between policing for curfew and for ensuring compliance of safety protocols, treating the violators as criminals and not as victims of circumstances. This can have even more of a serious consequesnce than the Covid itself.

A more serious issue is the slowdown in production and consumption caused by the lockdown.

Considerable awareness has been created about the pandemic with regard the vulnerabilities, symptoms, precaution, and the need for social distancing. Also, plans are afoot for improving the scope and coverage of medical facilities to take care of suspected/infected cases although there are serious challenges on the ground.

Clinicians have informed people regarding the side-effects of prescribed interventions, including those of the vaccines, and tried to prepare the people for exigencies.

Unfortunately, however, during last year’s lockdown, the nation did not have the benefit of such expertise. The resultant food and wage insecurity had its bearing on human health and anxiety levels. Thus, the side-effects of the lockdown became an economic emergency in their own right.

Limit economic harm

Measures to ensure non-closure of production-related activities are necessary in order to limit the economic harm. This would require ensuring the safety of all the people engaged in economic activities, including those involved in support services.

While essential services have always been exempt from lockdown provisions, select set of production and supportive activities must be included within their fold. Workplaces, except those in containment zones, must not be closed, thereby stabilising the gradual resumption of production observed in the past couple of months. Many workers who are entitled to receive pandemic benefits from the state must get them at their workplace, partly compensating for intermittent periods of unemployment as well. The migrants who had left for their home-towns in panic must be helped to come back.

Lockdown has been understood differently at different levels. Despite the directive to stay at home, a number of civil society, community groups and individuals have ventured out, not always with adequate precautionary measures, to reach out to the poor, elderly, physically challenged and the quarantined.

Unfortunately, there has been no specification of a framework or guideline for safe community participation, whereby much larger engagement of civil society could have been institutionalised.

While essential services have been defined and exempted from lockdown provisions, unorganised workers, who constitute the backbone of these services have not been included within their fold.

The pandemic, in the the first stage of the first wave — between April 25 and June 25, 2020 — did not spread rapidly in large cities; the daily increase was about 250, a growth of 2.5 per cent, much below the global rate. In the second stage, until October 15, it did not exceed 500 a day.

But, now, the spread has been very rapid, attributable mainly to the virus mutation as also the class composition of the population and the manner of separation/segmentation of residential, commercial and recreational spaces of the rich and the poor.

The spread is rapid — average increase of over 8,000 per day — also because of the living conditions in the big cities.

Social distancing has no meaning for the poor as 30-50 per cent of the households in these cities live in one room units, and have common drinking water and sanitation facilities.

Also, the slum-dwellers do not live in their houses but on roads, alleys and common meeting places. Lockdown for them means increase in proximity as they have to remain confined to their slums day and night.

Understandably, the virus is spreading rapidly in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Thiruvanathapuram, Bhopal and Raipur, among others. It is also spreading to other towns and rural areas within their states as these cities have a high percentage of inter-State and intra-State migration.

Selective and well-planned lockdown may be brought in containment zones in these cities, besides observing strict safety protocols regarding social interaction.

The way these have been violated in political and religious rallies, including mega social events, is criminal, to say the least.

Finally, there is an urgent need to start building a strong decentralised system of healthcare for the pandemic as there is a high risk of it reaching remote districts that are totally unprepared to handle this type of medical emergency.

Such a system will help bring down the inequality in access to quality healthcare facilities between rural areas, small towns and large cities.

The writer is a development economist

Published on April 19, 2021

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