The worryingly steep rise in the Covid-19 cases in recent weeks has brought back the dilemmas over lockdown. Though a total clarity over the relevance of lockdown is absent but we at this stage we are relatively better-off in understanding having experimented with lockdowns in different forms since the emergence of the pandemic.

The State governments which have been contemplating lockdowns are facing considerable resistance from sections of business and industry. The common public have not been giving heed to the calls for Covid-appropriate behaviour like physical distancing and hygiene. Karnataka was even forced to reverse or modify its lockdown orders following protests from gym operators, hotel owners, and film producers. The dilemma of lives versus livelihoods has come to haunt the policy makers once again.

The Centre, which has taken a backseat this time, is trying to persuade the States to take the required measures. The Centre seems to be reluctant to impose a national level lockdown like last year. Having faced considerable flak over its highly top-down and unplanned three-phase lockdown in 2020, the Centre would not like risking yet another debilitating step.

The Indian lockdown was rated as very stringent per the Oxford Covid-19 Response Tracker Index.

Despite the huge impact on economic growth government believes that its policy response has helped the nation transition successfully from ‘lives or livelihood’ to ‘lives and livelihoods’ situation.

But the Centre now is not willing to repeat its own ‘success story’ as Covid cases are surging again now. For now, a national level lockdown seems a closed chapter with ‘lives and livelihoods’ assuming prominence.

The States which are feeling the heat of the recent surge are being compelled to act on their own as per the emerging situation. While it is an opportunity for the States to display their own calibre in pandemic management, there are quite a few challenges which confront them. The businesses and people in general appear to be wary of lockdown and are showing their resentment.

But the States too, given their constraints, are resorting to more truncated and scattered measures like night-curfews, weekend lockdowns, micro-containment zone and banning certain activities with the police being asked to monitor the implementation more aggressively.

Growing opposition

Some States have faced protests by various groups demanding reversal to which they have even partly acceded. People are being urged to strictly follow Covid-appropriate behaviour with a threat of severe fines.

However, election rallies, religious events and social functions are being allowed without much of restraints which seem to be responsible for spreading the virus including its new strains.

Thus, States are in a dilemma over adopting more rigorous measures to tackle the fast spread of the pandemic.

The resentment of the public and business over lockdown needs to be understood little better before we can propose possible measures. The dilemma of ‘lives or livelihoods’ is very much at the core of the present challenge. Given the 2020 lockdown’s impact on business and livelihoods, the public would not like a repetition as any new lockdown may crush them further.

An estimated 11.4 crore jobs were lost and more than 1.06 crore migrants had returned to their villages during the lockdown period. Nearly 78 per cent of MSMEs were shut. Many of the businesses managed to revive during the unlock phase. An all encompassing lockdown would not go down well with the business and industry, which is demanding vaccination for their workforce on a priority basis.

The migrants who have returned to cities for work also would be reluctant as many have struggled to keep their livelihoods intact. It is also a question of dignity with no livelihood protection assured by the state on an adequate basis.

It is a similar story for vendors and shopkeepers not to mention students who have been fatigued by the on-line education. A World Bank Study revealed that absolute poverty numbers globally could increase by 106 million. Except for sectors with scope for work-from-home alternative, in general, the precarious livelihood situation has emerged as a major stumbling block.

In these circumstances, the States would be wary of imposing harsh measures given their political consequences.

Moreover, one major lesson learnt so far globally is that a full-blown lockdown may not work in curbing the spread of the pandemic. Despite the government’s claim of success, many assessments have revealed several undesirable consequences of lockdown like severe loss of education, mental illness, child labour, child marriage etc.

Therapeutic care, vaccination

Simultaneously, the medical fraternity has learnt many ways of savings lives through innovative treatment of Covid-19. The ultimate solution may lie in therapeutic cure and universal vaccination towards which all governments must focus.

So for States, what is called for is a via media between rigid lockdown and a free-for-all situation based on a bottom-up approach. The need is to flatten the pandemic and not the economic curve though some trade-off is involved.

A multi-pronged strategy of altered lockdown, preventive measures and 3-T (test-trace-treatment) could be adopted. The State governments can hold discussions with trade and professional bodies to arrive at workable lockdowns on a voluntary basis with curtailed work capacity or schedule fixed on a consensual basis. The businesses can be given choice as per their local situations with the condition that they adhere to agreed norms.

At the same time, the public and business can be assured that the lockdowns may be imposed in short bursts and in rotation so that there is minimum impact on the economy and crowding is avoided.

All non-essential religious events, festivals, political rallies must be restricted drastically in size and frequency with religious, political and trade union leaders taken into confidence. Police must monitor the measures and penalise the ‘flouters’.

Volunteer groups could be formed for local level monitoring in collaboration with the police. Examinations can be conducted after the peak and spread both spatially and temporally in consultation with students and parents. Home quarantine must be the norm for all milder Covid cases. Institutional quarantines must be spruced up especially for those having limited housing space. Both public and private hospitals must be augmented to meet the surging numbers.

Overall, the lockdown dilemma has to be resolved through a participatory approach. Such a lockdown may help save both lives and livelihoods besides being democratic and respectful of human rights.

The writer is Professor, Institute of Rural Management Anand