Dear Prime Minister,
I was one of those few who disagreed with you when you announced a complete lockdown of the country for 21 days with effect from 24 March 2020. I could foresee the havoc this cessation of all activity would result in. You managed to get the acceptance of the citizens for all the hardship this lockdown brought to their lives, only because no one doubted your sincerity and intention to save us from an unknown, invisible enemy. We clapped, lit lamps, and tried to maintain social distance as far as possible in our daily lives. When the lockdown was enforced for another 21 days, the people continued to be solidly behind you. The untold misery that lakhs of migrant labourers suffered, trapped in cities and towns far away from their homes, was borne by them with utmost patience and stoicism. Now that you have opened up some transport facilities to take them home and are also bringing back stranded Indians from abroad, the immediate distress of families has been addressed to a certain extent.
How far can social distancing be possible
As per the latest announcement, Lockdown #3 should end with 17th May 2020. The partial relaxation announced at the end of Lockdown #2 has resulted in a spike in the infection cases as well as deaths. This should have been anticipated. The infection curve will never be a parabola, but will always show a sine curve until a cure or a vaccine is found and introduced on a massive scale. Lockdown will result in the number of cases looking to be under control, but its repeal will inevitably result in a spike. The social distancing norm practically puts every individual in a 6’ x 6’ cell; condemning people to solitary confinement in cellular jail.
Human beings are products of biological cells that have been combining and recombining over billions of years. Our intellect is hardly a few hundred thousand years old, or maybe less. Even though the intellect tries its best to impose its will upon the biological being, the billions of years of evolutionary history cannot be wished away. The biological cells are social by evolution, and cannot be condemned to solitary confinement without enormous psychological damage.
So, in my opinion, the damage done by social distancing will be impossible to reverse. All the social units we know – families, friends, neighbourhoods, communities, etc will suffer enormous alienation resulting in a complete breakdown of society. Fortunately, in India, we have very strong cultural roots, that have largely survived Westernization, but one can sense the bonds getting frayed at the edges. The West is already experiencing and reporting this breakdown.
Damages to the economy
The damage that this lockdown has done to the economy is beyond simple comprehension. Paralysis has affected every limb and the body is very close to extinction. The world seems to be coming to a similar state that prevailed at the end of the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire fell, the people who brought it about never understood that they had done it. They paralyzed Roman social structure to a point where everybody forgot what that structure was. Taxes were not collected, armies didn’t get paid, and everything just lapsed. The patterns of civilization were forgotten, and a Dark Age enveloped all.
We are quite likely to fall into this paralytic trance if those in charge of things fail to comprehend the threat and lead the fight against it. Their paralysis is not because of an external threat, but by their own inner construction that prevents them from understanding what is happening. Robert M. Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” captures this paralysis superbly in his second book “Lila – An Enquiry into Morals” with the following analogy:
“It was like watching the spider waiting while the wasp gets ready to attack it. The spider can leave any time to save its life, but it doesn’t do so. It just waits there, paralyzed by some internal pattern of responses that make it unable to recognize its own danger. The wasp plants its eggs in the spider’s body and the spider lives on while the wasp larvae slowly eat it and destroy it.”
Our society today is in danger of becoming that spider and if we do not shrug off the paralysis that is descending upon us, we will soon be devoured and consumed by the wasp. No doubt Covid-19 is a formidable enemy, and we do not possess the weapons to defeat it at this time. But, by sitting immobilized, almost hypnotized, inside our 6’ x 6’ cells, we are not going to avoid its deadly embrace. By boldly stepping out of the gossamer web of the virus do we have a chance of confronting it.
Many experts have spoken and written about the damage that two months of economic paralysis have done to our country. Travel and Tourism, Hotels and Restaurants, Retail and Print Media, Mass Entertainment including spectator sports, Automobile manufacture and sales, are some of the sectors that have suffered enormous losses due to zero revenues during this lockdown period. They are also sectors that provide employment to a large number of people in the organized economy. How many of these businesses will be able to survive is anybody’s guess. Millions of their employees are either already rendered redundant or awaiting retrenchment. Many would have taken housing loans, automobile and educational loans that would become NPAs as there is no likelihood of new employment opportunities opening up in the near future. As more and more people work from home, many blue-collar jobs in offices will become redundant. The list of economic distress can become almost endless.
The possible solutions
The nightmare scenario that is unfolding before our eyes can be countered if we immediately resort to the following:
- Completely remove the lockdown everywhere and open up the country to a pre-20th January state.
- Abolish GST for 2 years.
- Abolish Income Tax for 2 years.
- Freeze outstanding bank loans for 6 months without them accruing any interest, giving the borrowers reasonable time to get back on their feet. Once the economy gets back on rails, these loans can be unfrozen and interest charged from thereon.
- Advance working capital loans to help reopening of closed businesses on terms that are easy. Reduce lending rates by Banks to 3% or thereabouts.
- Allow cheap foreign capital to come in the form of borrowings by corporates. Right now LIBOR rates are 1% or below 1%.
- Keep all pending Income Tax cases in deep freeze. Don’t resume Inspector Raj. Once economy is back to some health introduce a mechanism for a one-time settlement of these cases.
- Expedite infrastructure development. Current low cost of oil should be of great help here.
- Continue MGNREGA scheme to provide succour to unorganised sector. MUDRA Yojana must expand its scope to revive rural economy.
To finance all this we need to print currency. Do that unhesitatingly. But in order to control inflation, do all that is necessary to increase production, especially of food grains. Remove all unnecessary controls on sowing, movement of grains, etc. Reduce the role of middlemen to the barest minimum.
A pandemic needs dynamic solutions
The Coronavirus has taught us one big lesson. It is that a pandemic can happen without notice and spread like wildfire. Every time the virus will be different and we will not have the remedy for it readily available. Our response cannot be static like the one we provided this time. It has to be dynamic and measured. To achieve all this we will need a massive investment in the public health sector. Government hospitals must be expanded, modernized with lightning speed. Beds, equipment, ambulances, and all other infrastructure should be added to cater to increased requirements. Those private hospitals that have suffered huge losses should be taken over and converted into government hospitals. Start short medical training courses in nursing, radiology, and pathology all over the country to augment the availability of skills at these levels.
Lifting of the lockdown will, no doubt, result in a large spike in the number of cases and fatalities, but it will also provide the opportunity for herd immunisation to kick in. The spike may last a little longer on the graph but it should eventually tend to flatten. Meanwhile, the medical fraternity worldwide is sure to come up with a remedy that will counter this threat. The people also are largely aware of the dangers of this virus and have been given enough lessons in maintaining personal hygiene, washing hands, wearing facial masks, and reducing physical contact. But it is unrealistic to expect to maintain the kind of social distance we have been advocating when living space for a large section of people is so little. There are whole families living in 6’ x 6’ rooms. It is not possible to provide each member of these families with that much space.
Similarly, travel by air, rail, or road will also not become viable keeping this distancing norm in view. It will have to be given a go-by. It is impossible for any state to babysit a small town, let alone a country of 1.35 billion people. You have done your job in making them aware of the nature of the enemy. Now leave it to them to defend against it. Let them choose their priorities and live their lives as they deem fit. A normal life is what most people look forward to. In its absence, there will be untold and perhaps unredeemable psychological disruptions. Instead of hospitals, we will have to build more mental institutions, making the problem even more intractable.
So please, lift the lockdown and let the country return to health and sanity.