India will face new challenges in the coming days as economic activity and travel resume, and coronavirus cases start rising faster.
It will be critical to have a data-based approach as well as build consensus. Yet, challenges will remain, as the virus could spread much faster than in the last three months — when its pace was arrested by the lockdown — and people could struggle with trying to make rules for safety as well as resumption of work.
While one source of strength will be greater awareness about personal hygiene and social distancing, a source of weakness for the economy and people’s lives could be the confusion and uncertainty arising out of multiple authorities and changing rules. This needs to be addressed with stakeholder consultation, consensus building and coordination. The approach should be an evidence-based one, riding on data about coronavirus cases in India.
Making better policy through data
In some parts of the world, data about coronavirus patients has been made public or, at least, shared with researchers to help make policy about the rules to be put in place, to understand the spread of the virus better, and to empower people to protect themselves.
By now, India has a substantial number of cases. The data set of patients, their co-morbidities and other details can help in understanding and controlling the spread of Covid-19. It may be that if in Italy, people above 65 are more susceptible, the corresponding age in India may be 50 or something else. Some people may be less susceptible than others due to their past history of vaccination, or prior exposure to similar viruses. If we understand this better, it may be safer for them to venture out more than others.
The characteristics of the Indian population and its response to Covid-19 may be different from that of the population of Wuhan, Italy or New York, whose demographics and prior diseases are different. This and related data should be studied to form a proper policy framework and response that will be required particularly as the lockdown is eased.
The use of the Aarogya Setu app will create more data in coming days. In a welcome move, the government has made the source code open and announced a ‘bug bounty’ for anyone who is able to show a bug in the code. In addition, the government needs to enact a data privacy law. This has been with a select committee of Parliament and needs to move ahead.
After making adequate provision for data privacy, the data of Indian Covid cases, deaths, recoveries and other clinical characteristics can help researchers understand the spread in India and make better policy.
Multitude of rules and their impact on economy
A big problem in coming days is likely to be confusion about rules of behaviour, travel, quarantine etc. Rules could change from place to place and day to day.
Among the worst sufferers of this is likely to be the economy. The greater the uncertainty, the more often the rules changes, the more difficult it will be for the economy to revive, and for people to be able to go back to earning their living. The biggest conundrum is that though in an ideal world, decentralised decision-making is the best, in reality, when rule-making is left to thousands of different authorities, the scope for uncertainty increases.
This puzzle of trying to get back to life and work while trying to keep safe is going to be hard to solve. The difficulty of finding local solutions, while preventing misuse of power by numerous authorities, is going to be a big challenge.
Almost all levels of government — central, state, district, city, panchayats, sarpanches, as well as non-government authorities like airlines, RWAs (resident welfare associations), employers, market associations, vice-chancellors, school and college principals, and anyone with power and responsibility is going to be trying to make rules for how to keep safe while working.
This could make the environment quite difficult for both businesses and for people. Consider a business that operates across the entire country such as an online market platform. It must not only keep track of what the rules in each district are on the day of an order or shipment, but also of what they will be when the shipment arrives. Its delivery boys may face harassment if the rules change between the day of shipment and the day of delivery. Some RWA may not allow entry, or require deliveries to be left outside gated communities. In some places, the police may stop deliveries on the grounds of changing rules of what is essential and non-essential.
We saw a glimpse of how confusion in rules about air travel affected passengers. Many passengers came to know that flights had been cancelled after reaching airports. This seems to have been largely because different state governments made different rules about allowing flights. Even the rules about quarantine are different for each state.
Many passengers may keep away after this experience. The greater the uncertainty, the less will people be inclined to put money down next time.
There should be a process of consultation, consensus building and coordination between different stakeholders to prevent confusion. To avoid harassment, arbitrary power and chaos, state and district authorities and other bodies will have to find a balance between safety and convenience.
The coming months will require much greater cooperation than we have perhaps ever witnessed before. In the best interests of the people, agencies and authorities should give them adequate notice and allow them to plan.