Even after a harsh and unforgiving lockdown of more than 60 days, the curve of COVID infections refuses to flatten. The health infrastructure retains massive gaps, as two out of three districts lack testing facilities, and patients even in the national capital are dying because they cannot get beds. This, after the working poor were packed into unhygienic crowded quarantine centres, forced to stand in lines for hours for every meal, struggling against exhaustion and heat as they trudged hundreds of kilometres to return home, or being deprived food and water on wayward trains. The contraction of the economy and the destruction of millions of jobs and supply chains signal a worrying surge of mass hunger and unemployment.
It is apparent the policies of the Union government to battle the pandemic have failed. I believe that the people of India will gravely suffer the consequences of these failures for at least a generation.
People ask: What could the government have done differently? Wealthy industrialised countries like the United States have been felled by this deadly contagion, they say. What could a much poorer country have done differently to save the lives of thousands of its people? The stark answer is — virtually everything.
Begin with the decision whether to impose a nationwide lockdown, that too without notice or preparation. Had the government consulted widely with public-health experts, epidemiologists, economists, social scientists, and studied the global experience carefully, it would have ruled out the lockdown as bad public health because you cannot save millions of working people from infection by thrusting them into mass hunger. And I would have ruled it out as immoral. In a country in which the large majority live in crowded tenements without water or sanitation, a policy of enforcing radical physical distancing and hygiene extended protection only to the privileged people with secure livelihoods, larger houses and running water, and unleashed catastrophic suffering on the poor. We could have, instead, followed the example of South Korea, with a focus on extensive testing, public education and limited containment.
But even if parts of the country with high infection were locked down, the government could have first explained the reasons for this to the people, and addressed most of all the working poor. It could, with scientists and economists, have responded to questions in open, regular and empathetic press briefings.
For the period of a limited lockdown, it should have ensured that every household receives unconditional cash transfers of Rs 7,000, and a universal, expanded public distribution system (including also pulses and oil). Economists Prabhat Patnaik and Jayati Ghosh have calculated that for three and six months, respectively, for all Indians, this would cost not more than 3 per cent of GDP, and a manageable depletion of India’s foodgrain stocks of 77 million tons.
The government should now arrange repayment of loans instalments of MSMEs for six months to ensure that they do not sink. A cornerstone of its revival strategy must, like the New Deal in America, rely on massive public spending for a greatly expanded employment guarantee programme, and its extension to urban India. The government should peg pensions at half the minimum wage, universalise these, and ensure during the pandemic that these are hand-delivered to older persons so as to not place them at risk.
Migrants — and other citizens — should have at least a week to return to their homes before even a limited lockdown. Even at this late stage, it should restore full passenger train operations, and reserve all seats for a week for free travel by migrants on a first-come-first-serve basis. Even today, it has the capacity to accomplish this but is bereft of the will and the compassion required to do so. In normal times, the railways ran 13,452 passenger trains transporting 23 million passengers daily. Yet after over a month, it has transported less than six million workers.
The government should ensure free water tankers to supply water in slum shanties throughout the day until the pandemic ebbs, to enable people to wash their hands regularly and secure personal hygiene. It should massively ramp up helplines for both mental health and domestic violence, as well as mental health OPDs and places of safety for battered women. It should empty custodial beggar homes, women’s homes and children’s homes for those in conflict with the law, and offer, instead, voluntary and dignified places of safety for all at-risk persons.
To make prisons safer, I would use this moment to do what the Supreme Court has directed for decades: To grant bail or discharge all under-trial prisoners except perhaps those with the gravest charges. Even among these, those who are older than 65 and therefore at special risk, would be given bail for the period of the pandemic. The government should discharge people held for petty offences.
It would be impossible to overnight rebuild the public health system, broken for decades. But the government must, like Spain, deploy all personnel, beds and equipment of private hospitals for public use, free of cost, for the duration of the pandemic. It should by ordinance order that no patient is turned away or charged by any private hospital for diagnosis or treatment of symptoms which could be of coronavirus. It should also ensure that the treatment of all other ailments does not suffer during the pandemic. Beds for COVID should not be created by snatching away beds for other purposes.
The government should, from the start, have incentivised public and private corporations to exponentially expand production of PPEs, testing kits and ventilators. Most frontline health workers like ASHAs and ICDS workers, and sanitation workers, are underpaid and lack job security. It should convert stadiums, universities and hotels into hospital and quarantine beds. It should guarantee that every person, regardless of class, would be entitled to the same quality of quarantine facilities. London moved homeless persons to all vacant hotel beds for the duration of the lockdown, paid for by the state. There is no reason for India to not do the same.
You may ask: Where would the money come from? Most countries which went down the road of lockdown have invested 10 to 20 per cent of GDP on public spending to cushion against hunger and unemployment. India’s additional public spending turns out to be less than 1 per cent. The government could impose a cess of 2 per cent on the wealth of just the top 1 per cent, and an inheritance tax of 33 per cent. This would be more than sufficient to raise all the resources we need for everything I have suggested here.
Are we likely to do any of this? The clear answer is no. But not because this is not feasible. It is. Other countries have done all of this. It will not happen because the government and people of privilege will not allow this to happen. We cannot blame COVID-19 for the humanitarian crisis which has engulfed us, growing into the worst in most of our lives. We must blame only ourselves.