Wednesday, 29 June, 2022
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India is being forced to unlock during pandemic. But it’s no green zone yet

It is the way Indians behave that will determine the extent to which religious places, restaurants and malls will cause an uptick in Covid cases.

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Unlike many other countries, India is gradually lifting the lockdown before the coronavirus curve has flattened. Covid-19 positive cases are now doubling every 17 days, a little slower than a week ago. With several state governments relaxing the lockdown, we should expect that the picture will worsen and that — at least initially — we will see faster growth in the number of cases.

Is the lockdown being relaxed too early? From a purely epidemiological perspective, yes. Yet, from an overall perspective, we have little choice but to reopen the economy and allow people to earn their livelihoods. With the Narendra Modi government unable or unwilling to provide income support and direct cash transfers to compensate people for the loss of income, the only option is to shift the balance towards greater economic activity at the cost of higher epidemiological risk.

It is interesting that the very first item in the government’s guidelines for the first phase of the reopening are religious places, followed by hotels and restaurants, and then shopping malls. Given how large and congested religious congregations can be, it would be rational to presume that reopening them while the pandemic curve is rising is an avoidable risk. In the absence of an official explanation, we can only speculate whether spiritual or political-economic considerations prompted the decision to reopen places of worship.


Also read: Sanitation tunnels, thermal screening, thin crowd — new normal at Delhi’s religious places


Easier to open hotels, bars, eateries

The decision to allow hotels and restaurants to open is more justified because they not only provide massive employment but, at the margin, enable the rest of the workforce to be more productive. We should expect that hotel and restaurant owners have natural incentives to demonstrate that they are safe. The evidence suggests that the coronavirus spreads less through food and more through human breath and contact. At the minimum they have to ensure seating arrangements are adequately spread out, there are health checks on all staff, service staff have masks and protective clothing, there are adequate facilities for hand-washing and they have the capability to do contact tracing, if necessary.

Over and above this, restaurants are experimenting with plexiglass partitions between diners, disposable or digital menus, transparent or live streamed kitchens, contactless delivery and payments.

The good news is that there are fairly simple ways to minimise disease transmission at hotels, restaurants and bars. The bad news is that most business owners are cash strapped after two months of lockdown, they are staring at lower revenues for the foreseeable future and liquidity that the government’s fiscal package has promised is not easily translating into credit from banks. Since it is not in the public interest for them to cut corners with regard to safety, there is a case for governments to lighten their burden. State governments should consider freeing them from the burden of paying the various taxes and licence fees for the next six months.

Similarly, instead of taking the Inspector-Raj route to enforcing health and safety guidelines, state and municipal governments would do well to spread consumer awareness and sensitise people on the need to keep away from restaurants employing unsafe practices. The answer, especially now, is public education campaigns, not more inspectors. Most people are aware of the risks, the objective of public policy ought to be to get them to take safety measures seriously at specific instances where the risk of transmission is high. It matters where and when the posters and stickers are displayed.


Also read: Schools unlikely to open until late August, govt hopes situation ‘will be favourable’ by then


A yellow zone

According to the Retailers Association of India, “Malls act as the front-end for 45% of India’s organised retail…and 100 million jobs have been affected by the closure of malls and organised retail.” Even accounting for some exaggeration, it is undeniable that organised retail is a major employment generator in urban areas. On the other hand, simulations conducted by my colleague Karthik Shashidhar suggest that air-conditioned malls have a greater risk of spreading the infection compared to individual street-side shops.

So, mall owners and retailers will need to take much higher precautions and safety measures. If the cinemas remain closed, the consumer footfalls will decline. Even so, measures to limit the number of people, ensure adequate physical distance and prevent congregations will be necessary. Like in the case of restaurant owners, mall operators have a natural incentive to implement safety measures, and government policy must amplify them.

Ultimately, it is the way people behave that will determine the extent to which religious places, restaurants and malls will cause an uptick in Covid cases. If people see Unlock 1 as a green signal and throw caution to the winds — or observe the precautions in a pro forma manner — we will invite new rounds of local or even national lockdowns. The red-orange-green classification leaves no room for “act with caution, it’s not normal yet”. It would be prudent for state governments to include a “yellow” level, before the green — to indicate that all is not quite well, and that we are opening our economy under the shadow of the pandemic.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. good way to get rid of disposables they can have last darshan of Gods so religious places.. all political parties live and prosper by religion and religiosity .. so religion is next to economy

  2. SoPs applicable to religious places, hotels, restaurants and offices attempt to treat everyone and everything as same, this micro management is unnecessarily creating a sense of fear and insecurity, we forgot importance of maternal and child health care, all vector borne diseases, other disease burden in urban and rural areas, in addition, arbitrary and whimsical powers to field officers is increasing their out of pocket income, a neo licence raj, covid is a fact of life and govt should focus more into preventing fatalities through active surveillance, vigorous contact tracing, timely treatment, sustained social advocacy…

  3. In a country like India, lockdowns can only delay the spread of Corona virus. A month back India has few hundred infections. Today India has Corona infections in lakhs. After few weeks, it will become several lakhs. One simply can’t predict about “What’s going to happen in a month or two?”. The situation will only get worse until Corona vaccines are available for emass treatment.

  4. The total gains from an untimely and hurried lockdown are now being lost. Temples, Mosques and Churches are the last places that should have been allowed to reopen. Theres no jobs or economy at risk here. Cinemas, Malls, restaurants and the like too needed to remain locked down for another 2 months. What’s the point of having servers wearing masks and gloves when the cook in the kitchen could be sneezing and / or coughing all over the food?

    • Only brave souls will eat in restaurants for next several months. The intellegent hard working souls would prepare their own meals.

  5. Pretentious nonsense typical of mainstream media. Yes, don’t treat the public with inspector raj….yes, Indians are so disciplined and health and civiv sense conscious. One had to only see the so-called awareness among the educated middle class types which are being shared all round.

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