The Covid spike may soon touch 1.5 lakh cases a day, and as India sets new world records in the rate and volume of infections, we are again told to sit at home between 9 pm and 6 am, as if the virus steps out only during the curfew hours. Instead of bringing the entire economy to a crashing halt yet again and leaving people without livelihoods, the Central and state governments ought to redraw their strategies to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of 2020. First of all, our rulers should understand that livelihoods are as important as lives. It is a desperate statement to make, but the only true one in these times of a national crisis caused by an unprecedented surge of infections. All our governmental measures so far have been tailored keeping the primacy of lives over livelihoods, wantonly destroying jobs and earnings as if we could afford it. Yet, these measures did not stop the infection or deaths, while causing irreparable damage to the economy.
Before unleashing the police on anxious breadwinners, governments must think about the lives that would become meaningless without their livelihoods.
For the ruling party — which has a militaristic ideology, seeking its adherents to sacrifice their lives to uphold the nation’s collective good — it is strange to advise curfews, plate-clanging and diya-burning while the nation loses its will to stand up, fight back and regain its financial sinews. After the initial lockdown of April-May-June, the surge of infections in September 2020 only established the fact that a Covid curfew or lockdown can only postpone and not stop the infection. Even a partial repeat of this strategy, be it a weekend lockdown, night curfew or week-long containment, can become immensely counterproductive because by then a lot more people would have lost their jobs, purchasing power and ability to push the wheels of the nation’s growth. We did it once, failed miserably and hence should no more do such experiments.
Governments do not create jobs that are getting endangered and hence they have no right to take them away. A night curfew would mean the curbing of activities of malls, retail outlets, flea markets, restaurants, pubs, wayside eateries, street vendors, rickshaw-pullers, autorickshaw and cab drivers and a lot more in the unorganised and informal sector. Instead, the government needs to strategise on how these businesses can be protected and nurtured while ensuring that there is minimal viral load in the public space. It is incomprehensible that the netas and their minions did not think of testing and tracking at market places, instead of closing them down or forcing them to adhere to government-dictated time tables. For instance, there could be X amount of viral load in one part of Mumbai and X/2 in another part and X/10 in a suburb — so how can the response be the same in all these places without tests or a sero survey establishing the need to have a lockdown? Random testing and tracing of patients have not even taken off in any of the states and it is only those who are symptomatic or who have come in contact with infected people who are still getting themselves tested. There is no reason why the government should not allow those who have tested negative every week or those who have antibodies to go about their business without any hindrance.
It is interesting to note that while the panacea offered by Indian politicians is partial or full lockdown/curfew, the newly-elected US president offered an added $1,400 each to all US citizens who earn less than $75,000 a year and to all dependents, taking the total payout to $2,000 to beneficiaries. Blindly converting this into Indian rupees would mean a stimulus package of Rs 1.40 lakh to all those who earn below Rs 50 lakh a year. There cannot be a bigger booster dose for the economy than this kind of extra purchasing power and the government’s guarantee to watch your back. Added to this was the promise for vaccination to all adults by April 19. In the US, there is no distinction between those who ‘need’ and those who ‘want’ the vaccine, as is being insisted in India by the Union health secretary. In fact, when the Covid death figures of the Tricity of Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula were closely scrutinised, The Tribune found that 13 per cent of all those who died were below 45 — the cut-off age for vaccination. How do we categorise those 13 per cent who died of Covid? Did they need or did they want the vaccine?
India cannot afford to quibble over who wants or who needs the vaccine. Everybody needs it, particularly those who are of an age-group which is engaged in productive employment. In March, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry had asked the government to include workers in the Indian retail and e-commerce industry — which employs 40 million people — in the frontline warriors’ category and offer them vaccination. In the Chandigarh Tricity, those below 45 have had the maximum share of infection (40 per cent), and these are super-spreaders because they are the most active and move about the most. Unless these super-spreaders are vaccinated and protected, no number of curfews will serve any purpose because a temporary curfew will only be temporarily postponing the pandemic.
Of course, vaccines are in short supply and we need to do vaccine diplomacy as well. But nothing stops the government from putting up stalls in all the big markets in various cities to have random testing for the virus and its antibodies. It could even be made mandatory for all those who want to keep their shops open after 9 pm. Then, there is no point in talking about Covid-appropriate behaviour — it does not exist for politicians and their incessant campaigns, so why blame those who are merely trying to eke out a miserable living? Thus, before unleashing the police on anxious breadwinners, governments must think about the lives that would become meaningless without their livelihoods.
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