View: India is forced to implement all three strategies of combating the virus all at once


Thomas Hobson owned a stable of about 40 horses for hire in 17th-century Cambridge, but a customer who approached him for a horse could take either the one next to the door or nothing — this way, all horses got to be used, and not just the best animals. Hence the phrase, Hobson’s choice: there might seem to be many options, but effectively there is only one. That is what India is looking at right now.

A lockdown retards the spread of the virus from those who contracted it from exposure to carriers of the infection coming from abroad. If everyone stays put in the earliest stages of the infection, it could choke the virus in its initial confinements. And this is what India tried. But this horse would appear to have bolted, with the march of the migrant workers.

Tens of thousands of them have left their places of work to vend their way home, trudging the long miles back, as trains and other mass transport systems have been shut down without advance notice. The lockdown was announced without delivery of actual, tangible relief in the form of the daily bread, to earn which 90% of India’s workforce toiling in the informal sector must work every day.

covid

If a tiny proportion of these people had managed to get the virus from those they had come into contact with during work over the previous few weeks, they would be incubating it on their journey home. Spraying them like vermin would not kill the virus within their bodies, nor making them hop like frogs or perform other kinds of callisthenics, to punish them for leaving certain starvation behind to make a desperate bid to reach home, in the village that offers the only social safety net most Indians have, by way of underemployment in farming and sharing of meagre resources, albeit grudging, by kin who have stayed back in the village.

Migrant Miscalculation

They might have passed on the virus to many on the way, before some of them have been halted and herded into shelters. They should be quarantined there, fed and watched over for symptoms of Covid-19, till the end of the lockdown. But many more have escaped such interdiction and have moved on, heaving both the misery of the foiled migrant returning home worse off than before, and the virus.

This means a race against time for India to do the impossible: quarantine those showing symptoms, test them for the virus and treat those who test positive, trace their contacts, test them, treat those who test positive, trace their contacts, and so on.

This means India needs lakhs of testing kits, hospital beds, intensive care units and ventilators. India will effectively be practising all the three strategies of combating the virus all at once, rather than as separate alternatives: the social distancing lockdown; the trace, test, quarantine and treat strategy of Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea; and the third strategy of letting the virus spread while treating the 5% or so who fall desperately ill in intensive care units, while the populace acquires what the jargon calls herd immunity.

Local Manufacture

Gearing up to meet the medical emergency will kickstart some much-needed economic activity. Already, five industry associations, led by the Confederation of Indian Industry, are at work on indigenous production of ventilators, with automobile makers and other engineering goods makers preparing to retool their production facilities to make the components of the ventilator, specified in detail by the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Textile makers and the chemical industry should be roped in to make personal protective equipment and stand-alone masks. Liquor makers are already producing sanitisers.

Import of testing kits is not feasible, every nation needs them in large quantities. Issue compulsory licences to Indian producers, invite other nations that lack domestic manufacturing capacity to issue compulsory licences for testing kits and medicines under patent protection to Indian producers.

It is vital that the government undertake to purchase every item churned out by retooled production lines, subject to quality standards being met. The procurement arm must be empowered and immune to arbitrary inquisitions by a carping CAG, overzealous CVC or CBI.

Biotech companies, startups, research centres at government labs, IITs and universities must be asked to work on algorithms that can work out, given the genomic sequence of a pathogen, likely testing reagents and candidates for vaccines and cures. Such algorithms call for data. Policy must permit harvesting of data, safeguard against breach of privacy and make it available for research.

For the post-Covid-19 economy to recover, there must be massive investment. The State must stop worrying about the fiscal deficit for the time being, spend on relief, scaling up the medical and other infrastructure.

RBI can kick off a market in corporate bonds by taking a leaf out of the US Fed’s book — or the European Central Bank’s or the Bank of England’s — and buying corporate bonds directly. Without creating a vibrant market for corporate bonds, India cannot efficiently mediate savings to raise investment to the level economic recovery would call for.

Views expressed are author’s own





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