The country has gone into quasi-lockdown, and not a moment too soon. The prime minister’s Thursday night speech, replete with hyperbolic comparisons to World Wars, homilies on how to stay healthy, and observing a voluntary curfew on Sabbath with solidarity exhibitions of hand clapping and ringing bells, was high on rhetoric and low on solutions. There might be some moral purchase in making noise from balconies, but not much. It is akin to the good people of a high rise in Gurugram who have been yodelling “Hum hongay kaamyaab” (We Shall Overcome) as a booster shot against the contagion.
It is wise to temporarily shut airports to international traffic and bar foreign arrivals from a host of countries as the main carriers of Covid-19 are travellers from abroad. But valiant rescue flights to Iran and Italy do not solve the problem of thousands of overseas students and transient professionals, evicted from campus and offices due to closures, marooned with little money and stuck for passages back home. The army has set up nearly a dozen quarantine centres at cantonments throughout the country but is now reporting transport and logistical difficulties in shipping and housing high-risk returnees. Around 30 million Indians are said to be on the move in normal times, but now, even with reduction in train and bus services, social distancing has its limitations. A garments factory owner I know in Noida who downed shutters this week says that many of his Purvanchali workers have decamped to their villages. At the upper end of the scale the HR department of an international corporation with 65,000 employees is grappling with how to implement advisories issued from its US headquarters. “It is all very well to ask the staff to work from homes but about 40 per cent do not have laptops. You can’t expect them to perform routine administrative functions on smart phones. Effectively they are on indefinite, paid leave,” says a manager. The same applies to the Indian bureaucracy’s bloated workforce of babus dutifully following the prime minister’s suggestion that officials should work from home.
In countries with a wider coverage of digital communication, overuse of the internet is causing the opposite problem. Media reports say that Vodafone’s internet usage has surged by up to 50 per cent in some European countries as consumers shift to working at home and turn to services such as Netflix because coronavirus is keeping families indoors. In the UK, for instance, the telecom giant has 18 million subscribers, and shows a 30 per cent spike in data usage, because of the shift in working from homes. In a telling analysis of the addictive habit of idling the hours away, the Los Angeles Times reports a surge in viewing pandemic-themed dystopian movies such as Contagion and The Andromeda Strain.
In a dilatory work culture where delays, deferments, and chronic absenteeism are a way of life, the word “coronavirus” is now a plea to obstruct the legal process. Bizarrely, one of Nirbhaya’s murderers, who were finally hanged this week, used it; big-ticket offenders in the YES Bank scandal have cited social distancing in their failure to appear before investigators. Some MPs even brought it up as an excuse to avoid attending parliament mid-session.
The prime minister requests the public to be “sensitive” to those who cannot report for work. But reduced services across the country — of government departments, the courts, and police — can only bring unforeseen hardships.
Platitudes are an inadequate substitute for policy pronouncements that have not been thought through. Imploring retailers not to hoard and the public not to panic buy may be a stretch, given the ground realities. In metropolitan middle class neighbourhoods such as mine, grocery retailers have stopped home deliveries and there are queues at their door. A small Rs 50 bottle of hand sanitizer is selling at the local chemist for Rs 125. Shortages and rising prices of essentials are a looming threat.
India is at Stage 2 of the Covid-19 spread. The transmission of the virus is still local, therefore containable; the number of deaths and the afflicted is relatively small. Bar some stirring words and ringing endorsements from balconies on Sunday, there was no clear step-by-step forward plan in the prime minister’s speech. He did not dwell on how to protect the lives of the poor at a time when the economy is in dire straits, agricultural distress is growing, and unemployment rising. There was no reference to the insanitary conditions of urban slums and plight of wage earners fleeing to villages. For all the government’s social subsidies and direct cash transfers, the stark tragedy, stated by the last National Sample Survey Orgnisation, is this: Existing social security legislation covers only 8 per cent of the workforce of 459 million in India.