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A lockdown requires a command, an opening will require confidence

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: It is the quality of governance that will mediate the path to opening up, not just the economics versus life debate. The government will have to inspire total confidence in the robustness of the information it is putting out, whether on testing or supplies.

Lockdown in Delhi. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)

The decision on extending the nationwide lockdown or relaxing it in a phased manner is not an easy one. Many states are arguing for extending the lockdown. Even Kerala’s thoughtful proposal for a three-phase relaxation of the lockdown is, rightly, cautious. The case for extending the lockdown is based on two claims. Based on the data we have, we simply cannot confidently predict that any easing of the lockdown will not lead to an unmanageable surge in the disease. It is better to act on the precautionary principle in this case. This argument is not simply pitting lives against livelihoods. It is about the inter-temporal dimensions of how the trade-off might play out. The premise seems to be that longer lockdowns now might actually prevent the need for even longer lockdowns later.

The second premise seems to be that states need more time to be prepared to partially emerge from a lockdown. Adequate medical supplies, personal protective equipment, testing and tracing capabilities, quarantining facilities and protocols, administrative capabilities, will need to be in place to make the opening work. The important thing here is to make sure the lockdown does not provide an indefinite alibi for going slow on this preparation.

There are government task forces in place, and in many states the state machinery is moving. But the visible evidence suggests that we are still underprepared. For example, the risks the frontline health care workers are facing are enormous in the absence of enough personal protective equipment. India is not alone in this deficiency. But it would inspire more confidence in the system if there was a clearer, publicly articulated and independently verified picture of our preparedness.

There is a lot of good faith logic left to the argument that we need to extend the lockdown a little more to fully realise its gains, and not risk severe reversals. But the concern that the shutdown is also coming at an immeasurable human cost has considerable truth to it.

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There was suffering and hardship unleashed, especially for the poor and migrant labour, in the first few days’ chaos of the lockdown. Governments have responded. But the legitimate criticism is that not enough has been done to mitigate the immediate human costs of the lockdown. In particular, the level of financial support and security offered does not measure up to what is required. The government needs to address this concern with a more robust and confidence-inspiring economic package.

But when we think of the option of a partial opening of the lockdown, we will immediately run into this paradox. A lockdown is relatively easy to administer. It was done as a command and control operation. An opening up, or a partial opening up, will require immense confidence. First, it will require confidence in what our data is telling us. One of the arguments for a partial opening is a differential spread of the virus. According to some analysts, about 17 districts have high concentration of cases, about 200 districts have less than 10 cases, but 400 districts are corona-free. But how much confidence do we have that the virus-free districts are indeed virus-free? This is for epidemiologists and statisticians to tell us. The overall impression is that we simply don’t know enough yet to make this determination. This problem could be fixed in the coming weeks. But it will require a sea change in the kind of data that is collected and the way it is shared.

The second is a behavioural point. Even if social distancing norms are in place, how much confidence would you have that it is indeed safe to return to work? There is an irony here. The argument for opening up is that the poor need to get to work. But they need to only because they have been given little income support. Suppose you could tide over the lockdown, even with very modest savings. Or you had income support. Would you choose to return to work, if you were not compelled to, unless you were convinced it is as safe to return to work as these things might be? Even for wage labour, particularly those who can sustain themselves for a couple of months or get by with food support, this might be a dilemma.

Should you take a risk or wait it out a little more? You can command a lockdown. But whether people actually come out depends on your ability to convince people that it is safe, and the consequences of getting the disease will not be catastrophic. A lockdown requires a command, an opening will require confidence. These are two different governance modalities.

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The third is a logistical point that applies to lockdown as well. India is deeply integrated as a market and production circuit. A harvest in a district in Punjab might require labour from UP and jute bags from Bengal. For partial openings to work, you need very granular knowledge of how to make these economies work. As even the modest example of Punjab not getting enough gunny bags from Bengal suggests, there will have to be robust mechanisms to coordinate all the problems that may arise. While the Centre seems to be consulting state chief ministers more on the macro decisions, you will need nimble and wide-ranging coordination mechanisms, across several sectors of society and economy.

It is the quality of governance that will mediate the path to opening up, not just the economics versus life debate. The government will have to inspire total confidence in the robustness of the information it is putting out, whether on testing or supplies. In recommending a lockdown, the states seem to be honest enough to admit both that we don’t know enough and that we are not fully prepared. The Centre sometimes gives the impression, more, of controlling the narrative than eliciting the maximum transparency and making society a partner in the information architecture we are using to make decisions. We will require broad-based administrative and consultative mechanisms to move us from command to confidence.

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The empowered committees at the Centre, for example, seem to have the standard formula of being staffed with mostly government people for the purposes of governmental coordination. In contrast, Kerala’s task force that came up with recommendations seems be very broad-based. Whether we stay with a lockdown or partially open up, the success of the decision will depend on full knowledge of our preparation to make our decisions a success, and a full account of the reasoning behind our choices.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is contributing editor at The Indian Express. The article appeared in print under the headline: ‘Command to confidence’

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