Covid-19 is very contagious and dangerous and we need to try our utmost to prevent it from spreading and claiming more lives. Any death is one too many. It is also a challenging time for decision-makers because they are being called upon to deal with a complex situation that they were the least prepared to handle. In this crisis, we are extremely grateful to all those in the frontline who are bravely ensuring the continuity of essential services (health, retail, law and order, etc.) in spite of the risks involved.
Some governments across the world have imposed lockdown decisions as a way to deal with the epidemic, and others (with the exception of a few like Sweden) soon followed. Most people are accepting voluntary confinement and curfews, the curtailment of civil liberties and authoritarian rule as normal because we are in a crisis. When the first cases were detected, the lockdown was inevitable as it provided time to assess the situation and examine the various options available. Now that the lockdown has been implemented at least for a couple of weeks in many countries, it may be time to step back and examine this common response to the epidemic and its relative effectiveness, not because of the nature of the response itself but because of the context in which it is implemented and of prevailing circumstances. We may also ask ourselves a few questions.
Was the decision to lockdown whole countries more disruptive in some countries than in others and therefore counterproductive in the long-run? Countries with effective electronic surveillance and online shopping systems that work, for instance, would find it easier to effectively implement a lockdown. In other countries including some highly developed ones, the lockdown triggered panic buying and crowding at supermarkets – just what the lockdown sought to avoid! – by disrupting supply lines, closing down shops and/or reducing opening hours.
Are the financial and non-financial costs of confinement equal across social classes? Can we overlook the tremendous hardships imposed on the self-employed/daily-paid workers who are not entitled to paid leaves, on small entrepreneurs or on the millions of migrant workers in countries like India?
How effective is the lockdown decision in many less affluent residential areas and slums? Confinement is very difficult to implement in cramped living conditions by people who are worried about their next pay check. Some of so-called ‘san konpran’/ ‘Kokovid’ flout the lockdown not out of defiance or ignorance, but out of necessity and fear. What has been the impact of social media and continuous news updates on decision makers? Would they have decided differently in the absence of excessive pressure from social/mainstream media?
While every loss of life is tragic, what are the implications of focussing on the Covid-19 fatality rate in isolation and not as a percentage of total deaths for specific age groups?
In the coming months/years, millions risk dying across the world, of starvation, malnutrition, stress-related problems and lack of medical care or even being homeless, due to unemployment/loss of pension savings, resulting directly from decisions to lockdown whole countries. Can this risk be disregarded?
Answers to the questions raised above will differ. However, these are worth asking as they would help us decide on the way forward and on whether or not we should at some point change course and ‘cut our losses’.
The way forward?
It cannot be denied that the current situation is socially and financially not sustainable. The state does not have the means to dole out money to individuals and companies indefinitely. The self-employed and the daily-paid workers cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their livelihood for too long. At some point, the lockdown will have to end even though the novel coronavirus will still be present in the environment along with many other viruses and even though the vaccine will not yet be available. However, when suspending the lockdown, there are some mitigating measures that may be considered including, but not limited to, the following:
Order Covid-19 tests for the whole population and isolate only those who are tested positive. While this would prove expensive, it would probably cost less than one day of lockdown.
Restart operations in all sectors of the economy and ensure that people get and wear masks and gloves in public places and maintain social distance. Experience over the last two weeks involving supermarket/pharmacy employees would justify this move.
Ensure that employers allow people to work from home unless management can prove that presence at the place of work is unavoidable because of the nature of operations.
Ask those who are at risk for medical reasons to self-isolate.
Place hand sanitiser dispensers in all public places, offices, educational institutions and ensure that they are refilled regularly.
Ban large social gatherings until further notice. Ensure social distancing in and around places where people have to gather including offices and court rooms.
Make it mandatory for all major supermarket chains to have properly staffed, fully equipped and effective online shopping systems that offer reasonable choices (not predetermined sets of products) to customers as soon as possible. This will create job opportunities for some of those who may get laid off in other sectors.
Extend online/mobile payment to the maximum and accelerate the digital transformation of government transactions. This should not be a difficult proposition if we consider how this has been successfully done by the MRA. This too will create job opportunities.
Invest in relevant technology and give subsidised internet facilities to teachers and students at all levels (starting with secondary and tertiary sectors) to enable the latter to attend most of their classes remotely and interact with their teachers, and physically attend classes in smaller batches only when absolutely necessarily. Parents working from home will be able to look after their children at the same time. Give free tablets and internet facilities to students from vulnerable groups. The funds will come from reduced payment to bus companies on behalf of students and senior citizens.
Readers may add to the above list of measures.