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In locking down and opening up, state needs to choose its words carefully

Going forward, we probably need to talk about lockdowns and unlocks not in temporal sequential terms but in terms of severity or relaxations.

Written by Ajit Mishra |
Updated: June 2, 2020 9:26:54 am
India lockdown, India lockdown 5, Lockdown 5, Lockdown 5 guidelines, coronavirus India lockdown, Express Opinion, Indian Express We do need to have many restrictions on our social and (to a certain extent) economic activities.

What’s in a name? How does it matter whether we call the same set of “dos and don’ts” Lockdown 5 or Unlock 1? Many would say this is mere semantics, but the latter term has strong connotations. It brings a lot of positivity, especially after three extensions to the total lockdown of March 25, and it was important to change the language of discourse. Mind you, in terms of numbers daily increases in infections and COVID-19-related deaths, we are still on an upward slope and it will probably be a while before we peak. Hence, we do need to have many restrictions on our social and (to a certain extent) economic activities. But Unlock 1 signals a clear intention and frame.

The impact of “framing” has been studied by psychologists and behavioural economists for quite some time. In a celebrated experiment, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman asked participants to choose between two treatments for 600 people with a fatal disease. Treatment A results in 400 deaths (200 lives saved), and Treatment B has a 1/3 chance that no one would die but a 2/3 chance that everybody would. When A was framed as saving lives of 200 people, 72 per cent of the respondents chose treatment A over treatment B, but when treatment A was framed as 400 deaths, only 22 per cent chose A. There are several variations and extensions to this idea and it is accepted that framing matters. In many cases, this is more than simply a “feel good” factor; it can lead to important differences in behavioural responses.

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In fact, Lockdown 4 was the beginning of unlocking in several ways. At the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, we organised a webinar on Unlocking the Indian Economy nearly three weeks ago. It was clear that several operational aspects would need to be worked out and unlike the initial lockdown, unlocking has to be a gradual and phased affair. The last three weeks have not been without problems, but with Unlock 1, the government’s strategy seems to be clear. Whatever can be unlocked without too much endangerment, will be opened up. With the pre-lockdown GDP figures not looking great, employment and income plunging in the last two months, there was added urgency in the planning for unlocking.

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We cannot ignore the enforceability aspect as well. Had we gone down the path of calling it Lockdown 5, there was a serious risk that social distancing norms, as well as standard COVID guidelines, would have been ignored. It was clear that some sort of lockdown fatigue was creeping in. But now, Unlock 1 signals that there is more to be unlocked, more relaxations would be coming but citizens would have to do their bits.

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Going forward, we probably need to talk about lockdowns and unlocks not in temporal sequential terms but in terms of severity or relaxations. Given that we don’t have a targeted treatment for COVID-19 in sight soon, nor can we expect the arrival of an affordable vaccine anytime soon, it is highly likely that the virus is going to stay with us for a while. We have not gone over the first wave as yet, and even when we are out of it in July or August, we may see sudden spikes in later months. Depending on the situation, we may need to revert to lockdowns again. It does not have to be a total lockdown like the one we had in March, but there will be a closure of activities. It is important to pitch each such lockdown at the right level.

Lastly, it is important to ensure that a policy of lockdown does not lead to a shutdown of activities, even when the lockdown is officially lifted. Imagine Lockdown 5 announced with restaurants open. It is possible that customers would not go because the lockdown frame promotes fear, apprehension and avoidance. In that case, the objective of keeping the restaurants open is not met at all. Rather in the Unlock 1 frame, we would see them venture out but with care and compliance.

This article first appeared in the print edition on June 2, 2020 under the title ‘What’s In A Frame?’.

The writer is director, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

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