Forced to stay at home for over a month, we can’t help but feel incarcerated through no fault of our own. However, subconsciously, we all feel guarded against the terrors of Covid-19, because of an early lockdown, that has devastated even the most developed of nations. But how effective is a nationwide quarantine for India?
By now, most of us have probably heard the phrase “flatten the curve”; this refers to nothing more than spreading out the number of coronavirus patients over a span of time. Medical equipment is limited and if too many people were to get sick at once, hospitals will face a difficult decision as to who to cure and who to leave for probable death. Such a case has already been observed in Italy, where old people were rejected over younger ones given their lower chance of survival and a larger requirement of medical equipment.
India has 8 doctors and 7 beds per 10,000 people as compared to a more populous China which has 18 doctors and 42 hospital beds per 10,000 (Economist). Flattening the curve is necessary for India if it’s not flattened, the ratio of people dying due to the virus will increase drastically.
The next question that arises is, how would we go about it? Lockdown, a procedure most countries have adopted is extremely effective in decreasing the number of new Covid-19 patients per day which in turn flattens the curve. However, it comes at a significant opportunity cost. India has the highest number of ‘extremely poor’ people as defined by the world bank (Worldbank) at roughly 50 million. These people, and more, were daily wage workers who are now unemployed and possibly out of savings. The government has released a relief fund of Rs. 1.7 lakh crores ($22 billion) which provide each household with 5kgs of wheat/rice and 1kg of pulses per month for 3 months and subsidising the same in stores. Additionally, MGNREGA wages are being increased to Rs. 202 from Rs. 182. Rs. 31 crores are also being given to the construction workers’ welfare fund. These are all great steps taken towards helping the poor for dealing with unemployment.
These numbers however, only look good on paper, if we delve deeper, we realise how far off this fund is from really relieving any one of those 50 million people in extreme poverty. An additional Rs. 20 from increased MGNREGS will not significantly improve situations for a household. We have roughly 8.5 million construction workers in the country, even if the Rs. 31 crore of the added construction workers’ welfare fund is split equally, each person only gets an additional Rs. 36.5.
To see how much a typical household benefits from the package we have to look at its consumption behavior. If we look at a household that consumes food for survival above anything else we would have the following estimate. A typical Indian household would consume 10 kgs of wheat in a month as its sole source of carbohydrates with no rice (on a very modest side).
1kg of pulses, if eaten twice a day will last roughly 5 days (again modest). This means that a household needs 10 kgs of wheat and 6 kgs of pulses to survive. The relief fund provides 5 kgs of wheat and 1 kg of pulses. A packet of the cheapest pulses costs roughly Rs. 90, and the cheapest wheat costs Rs. 250 for 5 kgs. Therefore a mere surviving household needs to spend a whopping Rs. 461 per month over and above what it’s given in relief just for meals. This doesn’t even include costs of drinking water, electricity, or other necessary requirements of a home. It may not seem like a large sum of money to us, but for a daily wage worker, it’s an excruciating amount. Furthermore, the government is having problems distributing the promised wheat and pulses due to labour and truck availability, only 15% of the intended households have received their 1kg of pulses so far (Hindu).
Even a mammoth relief of $22.2 billion is falling extremely short of what the country requires, illustrating that a lockdown isn’t sustainable. India had 564 confirmed cases when the lockdown was imposed, and for quite a few days after, cases only rose by less than 100 per day, implying the medical staff and equipment were underemployed, but the poor were still unable to earn an income. “We have run out of food and neither have money nor ration now. There are 15 of us living confined within three rooms. We have been surviving on the charity of others and cooking whatever the neighbours donate to us. It’s hopeless,” 27-year-old Das, from Jharkhand, told The Diplomat (The Diplomat).
In slum areas, the matters are inconceivable. Take Dharavi for example, Asia’s largest slum has a staggering population density of over 270,000 people living per square kilometre (World Economic Forum). With a lack of sanitation and social distancing being impractical, the lockdown doesn’t seem logical. Proud providers of the family are now left vulnerable and completely at the mercy of their neighbours and the goodwill of society. A breaking point is within reach. A further increase in lockdown will result in acts of desperation as we’ve already encountered. On April 14th for Mumbai and 15th for Delhi, as our Prime Minister declared an extension of the lockdown till 3rd May, thousands of people gathered en masse at Mumbai’s Bandra railway station, and Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus station in protest, desperate to return to their villages. They were lathi-charged and dispersed. These gatherings are antithetical to the very purpose of the lockdown. Continued suppression and leaving a sentiment of powerlessness during desperate times can lead to mass protests and violent riots in the country.
Furthermore, to be able to spend on virus-related expenditures, the government has announced that DA for central government workers will not increase until July 2021. This acutely affects families dependent on pensions and decreases the incomes of those that aren’t. Central government workers include peons, watchmen, drivers, clerks, stenosis, etc. among the lower pay grade, this DA freeze will effect. These people too, have more than enough reason to be irate.
Ideally, after the lockdown initiated, a series of substantially increased testing and backtracing the virus could have allowed the country to get rid of it, or at least minimise the number of new cases per day. Such a method was extremely effective in South Korea and saw immaculate results. Unfortunately, our government was slow to react with only 47,951 tests conducted for the virus by 31st March (BloombergQuint). Seeing that India may become a coronavirus hotspot, WHO had donated 1 million testing kits to India prior to that date, so the government wasn’t in short supply either (economist). India has only recently surpassed 500,000 tests, which is not ideal to say the least. Additionally, there have been no national-level attempts from the government for contact tracing other than developing and endorsing an app called ‘Aarogya Setu’, which only allows the people that have downloaded the app to see who could possibly be infected and whether they’ve come in contact with them. Seeing that cases have risen past 24,000 as of 26th April, completely eradicating the virus seems to become less and less of a possibility with current measures.
Each day in lockdown for us is another day each one of those 50 million people has to rely on the altruism of their neighbours and relatives. With increased tensions amongst the public, a further extension of the lockdown could quite possibly lead to mass hysteria and violence. There is no substantial improvement regarding the virus. The future too, with current trajectories, seems bleak. In such a situation, the ideal plan of action would be to end the lockdown on May 3rd with the heavy implementation of social distancing, and the number of people per family permissible outside the house to be severely limited. If the government doesn’t follow suit, they’re taking a huge chance with the Indian public, and we all know how that ends.