On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held another video conference with state chief ministers to discuss the ongoing battle against the coronavirus, and to plan ahead. This, the fourth such interaction, was held amid growing signals of the government preparing for a gradual easing of the national lockdown as economic concerns begin to loom larger — with the prime minister himself noting that “we have to give importance to the economy as well as continue the fight against COVID-19”. This signals a cautious shift in strategy. As the lockdown has progressed, with the disruption in economic activity intensifying, its toll becoming more visible, the stark debate of lives vs livelihoods is being steadily recast and reframed. Among several state governments too, as the fiscal strain is beginning to show, the mood seems to be shifting from unqualified support for a nation-wide lockdown to a push towards a gradual and calibrated exit.
To be sure, as states are on different infection trajectories, each one will have to firm up separate plans for easing and exit. States with lesser number of infections, or with a better grip over the spread of the virus, are likely to press for easing more restrictions so as to allow economic activities to resume, at least in the green zones. Yet even the modalities of the exit from the lockdown in the green zones will have to be worked out carefully. One thing is clear: Both Centre and states must work together to figure out ways to allow economic activities to resume while minimising the health fallout — even as any such joint strategy will need to take into account, and make space for, the differences across states and the varied emphases of state governments. As the number of cases mounts – during a meeting of state chief secretaries, the central government projected the number of infected in the country to reach 65,000 cases by May 15 — and the capacity of the healthcare system of the country comes under more strain, coordinated action at various levels of government will become more urgent to ensure continued expansion of the institutional capacity — setting up of containment wards, production of ventilators, ensuring adequacy of testing equipment.
During the course of the interaction on Monday, the prime minister also spoke of the need to usher in reforms that touch the lives of common citizens. While fiscal and monetary support will be needed to nurse the economy back to health, given the collapse in economic activities, the need to push through contentious but required factor market reforms that address the long-standing structural issues that plague the economy, cannot be overstated.
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