Everyone knows that the spread of the novel coronavirus is mainly from person-to-person. It is, therefore, welcome that the Centre has now exempted transportation of all goods from the lockdown’s provisions, without distinction of “essential” and “non-essential”. When goods aren’t the culprit — they cannot cough, sneeze or shake hands — it didn’t make sense in any case to allow bureaucrats and local authorities to decide what is essential and hold up trucks carrying material deemed non-essential. To produce sugar, an essential commodity, a mill needs not only cane, but also sulphur, lime and HDPE bags. One cannot expect officials or state border police to have intimate knowledge of production processes and inputs that go into every good, essential or otherwise. The purpose of lockdown is to minimise physical human interaction and maintain social distancing even if people have to meet. Blocking movement of goods, far from achieving that objective, only results in overcrowding and snarls at check posts.
But it is not only transport. There’s no reason why even industrial establishments cannot be permitted to run during lockdown. Again, it shouldn’t matter whether these units are producing essential or non-essential goods. What matters is only social distancing. How can one declare knitwear or grey iron castings as non-essential? The Punjab government has taken the right step of permitting all factories in the state to resume operations, subject to their being able to provide in-house lodging, food and medical facilities to workers and ensure no overcrowding at the plant. Most factories today, whether in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi or Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, are manned by migrant labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other eastern states. Had measures to retain this workforce within or close to the premises of factories been in place — instead of a blanket order to shut down — the current situation of mass exodus of labourers and the attendant risk of COVID-19 transmission may have been avoided. It isn’t going to be easy for the closed units to get this labour back even when the lockdown ends.
The economy is ultimately a living machine — one that cannot simply be turned off and on. Even in a lockdown, it needs to be kept alive and whirring. The danger from mechanically ordered closure of activities is that resumption becomes difficult. Rebuilding broken supply chains is easier when things are allowed to run even if at low key, so that the system can respond when demand returns. Combating COVID-19 should obviously be the government’s top priority now. Lockdown is a necessary part of that strategy, but cannot be an end in itself. It is necessary primarily for social distancing, which can also be achieved without bringing the wheels of commerce to a complete halt.
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