Forced shutdowns will disrupt the supply chain and make the functioning of essential services, like health care, more difficult
The complete lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to fight the coronavirus threat has generally been welcomed. But the totality and severity of the action and the manner in which it is being executed across the nation will cause more problems than it can solve. We already have horrific images from our capital cities and remote parts of the nation of police forces, many in plain clothes, beating people up for venturing outside without an understanding of why the person may be out. In some cases, vehicles are allegedly being seized, and there are already complaints in some instances that vendors have had to pay to sell vegetables.
Willy-nilly, the first line of defence against the pandemic has therefore turned out to be the strong arm of the state, with all the ills that the danda, as the weapon of choice, can bring in these matters. Contract labour and temporary workers who have left their workplaces in the cities and are headed back home are now forced to walk hundreds of miles with little or no money and no food or water. Those leaving for their home districts are unlikely to be back at work soon. This is not counting the disease burden they may carry or add to by unwittingly being carriers of the virus to far and remote parts of the nation, having travelled in overcrowded trains and buses before the services were suddenly stopped. What is worse, many of them are now being looked at with suspicion, as if any cough or sneeze might make them criminals worthy of penal action rather than medical attention.
The withdrawing work force is already crippling the supply chain and breaking the back of what is one of the most oiled, privately-led and managed system of delivering goods and services across India. This is dangerous, and may cause many deaths that may unfortunately not be recorded as a result of Covid-19, but are in any case a result of the pandemic. Call it collateral damage, but these pitfalls cannot and should not be missed. It will result in terrible unintended consequences.
Take the example of soap, a commodity that is of critical importance in stopping the spread of the virus. There is a huge and well-positioned communications initiative by the government to promote handwashing as the first line of defence against the virus. But what is the use of the campaign if soap were to become unavailable?
In the large cities of India, and most certainly in a metropolis like Mumbai, soap is re-stocked at least every two days. Reaching the commodity out, from shop to kirana shop, is an army of sales people who travel by trains and auto-rickshaws and punch orders on a sophisticated hand-held booking and sales system. Both are vital — the technology-enabled sales platform as well as the physical teams that go around filling shop shelves. Now, neither of them is working, increasing chances that soap will soon disappear from the shelves.
The fear is that we will soon reach the days of price control of the 1970s, when soap was not available and the then Chairman of Hindustan Unilever T Thomas had to have a meeting with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for permission to manufacture a janta soap! Further, manufacturing of soap has stopped because workers trying to reach factories are being beaten up on roads, and in any case, that manufacturing depends on the input of raw materials that again need the network of trucks and suppliers to feed the line.
Also consider the instance of thousands of workers who help run our hospitals and clinics — the ward boys, nurses, compounders, the cleaning staff and the supply teams that re-stock medicines. Without them, how will the health centres work? There are instances where doctors have closed their clinics and gone home, saying they will come back after the lockdown is lifted. This in effect means that what should be an important line of defence and advise and comfort to the community has overnight virtually disappeared.
The consequences of this can only be catastrophic. Where will people with other ailments go for treatment? How does an ailing person go for dialysis, how can a doctor consult a heart patient and how does anyone indeed get an ambulance when the ambulance driver cannot reach his workplace to drive that vehicle?
That apart, in several of our cities there are huge numbers of senior citizens who live by themselves and depend on a local area food delivery service to eat their meals. In one estimate published several years ago, as many as 40 per cent of senior citizens in Mumbai live alone. Another estimate said Tamil Nadu has the largest number of senior citizens living by themselves. Many of them depend on home-delivered food. And if one of them needs help, how can they call for help and how can their children reach them in time?
The result will be panic, and the effort to contain the spread of Covid-19 will again take a hit. And these are only a few examples of how and where things can go wrong, with the purpose of the entire action lying defeated.
In any case, there are questions on how a total lockdown will impact the spread of the virus, given that our cities have large slum populations where people live cheek-by-jowl. In Mumbai, over half the population of around 25 million is in the slums. The largest slum colony is Dharavi, which has become a destination for tourists and guided tours looking for ‘local flavour’ in a place teeming with small leather factories, shops and recycling industries.
Dharavi has a huge Tamil population, and many shops in the interior by lanes have their signboards in Tamil. These are hard-working people who live in difficult conditions, help run the local economy, recycle waste and also feed themselves. Here, as in many other slum areas, social distancing is a myth. Overcrowding is the norm.
What this tells us is that what looks like a well thought through and reasonable decision to lock down the nation is in effect, a poor choice. What we need is for all State governments to quickly take charge of local area policing, issue strict orders for policemen to withdraw from the streets, and enable the essential services to run with support and State cover where required.
It is not enough to say that essential services are exempted from the lockdown. The State will have to make sure that they run. It is the moral duty of the government to ensure that the lockdown doesn’t lead to a total collapse, as it inevitably will, if corrective action is not taken immediately.
Through the Billion Press. The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal