Countries are tackling the threat from COVID-19 in different ways. India, with its limited healthcare system and its densely populated cities, chose to try to shut down as much as possible, as soon as possible. This hurts livelihoods, but may protect lives.
As COVID-19 spreads through the world, national strategies for tacking the coronavirus are also being revised continuously. The worst of both worlds for any country today is when it can neither prevent loss of lives, nor that of GDP.
With the emphasis on protecting lives, even at the cost of hurting GDP, India has taken a step in the right direction. There is no doubt that GDP will be impacted by the coronavirus. Stock markets, which are fundamentally based on looking into future growth, are unsurprisingly exhibiting huge volatility. No one knows how long this will take, and where we are heading.
Trying to predict growth rates and the extent to which the economy will be hit is premature. It depends on how the coronavirus will spread in India, and we know very little about that.
We hope and pray that our tropical climate and the approaching summer will make the spread slower than in higher latitudes. We hope that if we can delay the contagion, then by the time it becomes worse, there will be a vaccine, and that we will also know what medicines can help patients. But there is little that we know now.
There is no doubt that the service sectors like tourism, hotels and airlines, in particular, and the urban economy in general, will be massively hurt by the lockdowns and social distancing measures being taken. There will be multiplier effects as incomes get hit. But preventing the spread of the coronavirus before it infects more people is critical.
Lessons from Italy’s mistakes
When northern Italy saw a lockdown, people went southwards. They took the virus with them. Today, when urban India is shutting down, many daily wage workers, unable to earn their livelihoods, will go back to their villages. If the spread of COVID-19 is stopped before people take it to their villages, food will continue to be produced.
The economic effect may be a sudden and sharp downturn, but one from which we can potentially recover fast. At the moment, some lockdown steps may make people complain, as they lose customers and incomes. The critical thing is to contain the virus before it spreads across the country. Ways need to be found to pay workers, delay loan payments, support businesses to be in a position to bounce back when the lockdown is over.
Until barely a few weeks ago, the Italian authorities were expecting loss of lives, but were unwilling to shut down tourist spots, restaurants, universities and schools across the country. The economy was weak and the authorities did not risk it getting weaker. Analysis by the Bank of Italy COVID-19 monitoring team states that in democracies, the strategy of trying to save livelihoods at the cost of losing lives can give us the worst possible outcomes.
This analysis, coming from a country that made the mistake of trying to prevent loss of livelihood before loss of lives, and ending up losing both livelihoods and lives in the one of the worst tragedies being witnessed today, is an important lesson to be learnt by the rest of the world.
The main lesson from the Italian team of economists is that a choice is sometimes presented between business-as-usual options that keep the economy running. It is assumed that the cost in terms of public health is tolerable. It is assumed that society will accept a number of unavoidable losses in terms of human lives. Lockdowns would save lives but ‘kill’ livelihoods.
The economists correctly argue that the choice is only apparent. This option is very unlikely to be sustainable from a political standpoint. In democracies with free information, like the UK or the US, such an approach, implicit in the first few statements by their leadership, was very soon questioned by experts, and was reversed in the face of the public outcry. But thanks to the delay in social distancing, the most likely outcome for them is the worst of both worlds: preventable loss of lives and of GDP.
India chose to hunker down even before the WHO had said it should.
No doubt, there is much more that needs to be done — testing more people, preparing the healthcare system to take care of the rising number of patients, figuring out ways to utilise the private health sector to fight the coronavirus, and so on.
In the long run, economic growth depends on the size and health of the working-age population. COVID-19 is so far hitting the elderly and those with co-morbidities, rather than the young. The share of the working population being hit, so far, is small.
While we do not know how long the downturn and possibly a contraction may last, the long-term effect, based on simple projections of the working-age population that is being hit, should be limited. And that could be the silver lining to this cloud.
The author is an economist and a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Views are personal.