The lockdown has destroyed the livelihoods of migrant workers...

Vinod Vyasulu | Updated on June 02, 2020 Published on June 02, 2020

... but with millions forced to return home with all social distancing norms thrown to wind, they may have developed herd immunity

The first recorded case of Covid-19 in India was on January 30. It was in far away Kerala. Far away because the Union Government, based in Delhi, is not really bothered with the troubles and tribulations of those not in the immediate neighbourhood. This has been the case for hundreds of years, long before there was a Republic of India.

The priority of the Central Government at that time was to ensure success of the Trump visit to Gujarat. Covid was not in the zone of relevance for either Modi or Trump. After the visit, Trump said he would never be edited about a crowd after his speech to over a lakh at the Motera stadium.

February was taken up in the successful Trump visit. Social distancing would have made it impossible.

By March 24, there were around 200 Covid cases, mostly in Kerala, with a fatality rate around 2 per cent. It did not attract much attention in a country where other diseases have higher morbidity and mortality rates.

News began to come in from abroad about this dangerous new ‘China virus’. Parts of Italy were in lockdown. Wuhan in China was in lockdown. Other countries were mulling lockdowns. Suddenly, Covid was depicted as a deadly virus that spread inexorably, causing sickness and death.

Based on available information, countries began to act. Areas with infected cases were isolated. This was possible as adequate health infrastructure existed, and social security systems were functioning. The fear was that these would be overwhelmed. With the exception of Sweden, most western European countries opted for some kind of total lockdown, in which compliance was policed.

The Sweden model

Sweden took a different path. Based on available evidence, it came to the conclusion that Covid was here to stay, and could be restricted but not stopped. In the long term, herd immunity was the answer.

Herd immunity occurs when a large number of people get exposed to the disease and recover. This could happen naturally, or through vaccination. Since there was no Covid vaccine, it could only be through exposure. And since Covid resulted in flu-like symptoms, sometimes severe, but often moderate or mild, recovery levels were high. A majority of those who got exposed could be treated at home, with quarantine, while others could be hospitalised.

Sweden chose to bet on herd immunity. It had a good health system, but was concerned that it could be overwhelmed if all who were exposed went to hospital. Italy faced this situation where the nightmare choice of having to deny hospital care to sick elders had been made.

Sweden did not declare a lockdown. It chose to depend on people’s sense of responsibility. People were advised to stay home, limit movement, and to be conscious always of the need to wear masks and maintain respectable ‘social distance’ from others.

Sweden faced criticism, but stuck to its decision. The number of infections, and also fatalities, were high in comparison to its neighbours who implemented lockdowns. The debate about the merits of this path is on.

Sweden made one serious mistake, and has acknowledged it. It has a relatively large proportion of senior citizens living in retirement homes. The elderly, especially those with what today are called ‘comorbidities’ — other ailments like diabetes, hypertension or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — are more susceptible to Covid, and it is much more severe on them. Fatality rates in this segment of the population are high. A large number of the deaths due to Covid in Sweden are of the elderly.

Fear and panic

In this media created frenzy about this new deadly virus from China, an atmosphere of fear and panic was created.

While it was known that Covid could spread rapidly through the air via droplets, and touch, it was also known that its effects on a majority were mild to moderate, and fatalities were low. Data showed that in the US, normal flu killed more people every year than Covid.

India, till March, was fortunate. Infections were in some locations. Kerala had a surge, but coped well. Systems were put in place, and the record since shows the pandemic — a word now used — was coming under control. Other places were doing relatively well too. Newspapers spoke of the excellent response of the local administration in Bhilwara in Rajasthan.

I fear India, or rather Indian decision-makers, panicked. The wealth of experience in Kerala and elsewhere was ignored. There is no other word for it. Fear became the underlying strain. Lives had to be saved. This was the single point that dominated decision-making since March.

Fear underlay the Prime Minister's speech on March 24 evening, when he announced a lockdown with four hours notice. People were to stay where they were.

What followed has been well documented. Crores of poor labourers, working far from home, lost their livelihood with the lockdown. India did nothing for them. The relief packages announced were for businesses. No mention was made of hungry labourers. India — the Union Government — sold our collective soul.

Now we hear that the advise of experts, convened by the Prime Minister, was simply ignored. Orders were issued, and chaos followed. Today, there are close to two lakh cases, with a fatality rate of 3 per cent.

Lives saved

The economy, already in recession before the lockdown, is in shambles. Jobs have disappeared, and unlikely to return. Businesses are fearing ruin.

And now, based on Schellings’ academic concept of ‘statistical value of life’, one hears that the Centre is working to estimate the ‘hypothetical lives saved’ as a result of the lockdown from March 24. To be clear, this was in four variants — version 2, 3, 4 and 5.

So now we weigh the value of hypothetical lives saved against livelihoods destroyed. There could be a final irony. These distressed labourers are largely moving from the West and South to the North and East. Their arrival may lead to a spike in infections.

But, and this could be important, they might also unintentionally be part of the solution. Exposed as they have been, for about two months, with no social distancing, little food, and horrendous surroundings, they may have developed herd immunity. Out of the horror they have experienced, may come an unintended, unearned blessing. Herd immunity.

The writer is a Bengaluru-based economist

Published on June 02, 2020
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