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Minimising the cost of lockdown

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Brazil has adopted the approach of facing corona head-on

Brazil has adopted the approach of facing corona head-on. They have accepted the fact of large numbers of people dying and, hopefully, the remaining developing immunity. No wonder, at the time of writing this column, the numbers of cases in Brazil were 1,464 per million people against 58 for China and 86 per million for India. These cases impose a huge economic cost. Economists used the concept of "Years Life Lost" to value such deaths. The amount of money a person is willing to pay for living an additional year multiplied by the number of years lost becomes the economic value lost because of a death. Brazil has incurred an economic huge cost — and counting — because of these deaths. The emotional cost is also huge.

China, on the other hand, has adopted contact tracing to successfully control the spread of coronavirus. All persons venturing on the street should have an app on their phones that tells the government of their movements. They have to identify themselves at the door of a restaurant. The sensor checks their temperature and gives green signal to enter. All persons having come in the contact of a person found to be corona-positive can be traced through the app and quarantined. The economic cost is less because economic activities can resume with full speed. However, successful implementation of this approach requires a proactive government machinery to trace the contacts and to quarantine them. The situation can become much worse if quarantine is not strictly implemented. Another negative is that leakage of such data can be devastating. For example, a thief can know when you are not in the house. The government can also track its political opponents. Yet another problem is that Chinese culture considers the king as beneficent and the king reciprocates. Indian culture considers the king as oftentimes perverse and expects the "Brahmin" to restrain him. The Brahmins, alas! have abandoned this responsibility. As a result, the Indian king is bereft of any control and can easily go haywire. Surveillance in such situation is a sure recipe for disaster. I am not in favour of this approach for these reasons.

New Zealand and Kerala in India have successfully implemented social distancing. However, this has imposed a huge economic cost. People have been left without work for long periods. Economy has come to a standstill. Bigger danger is that infections can come in a second wave once the economy is opened.

The Brazil model is not suitable for us because of the emotional and economic costs of large numbers of deaths; and the China model is not suitable because we value our political freedoms. The only option available to us is to implement the Kerala model of social distancing combined with raising immunity to prevent a second wave of infections. The way forward is to open up all productive activities — industries, construction and even schools where a specific set of persons are coming in contact with each other — and ensure isolation of this set with rest of the society. The government can appoint "Corona Inspectors" and ask the establishments to pay them for their services. This can be initially allowed for in-situ works. The establishments can be required to establish barracks for the stay of their workers. Schools can be asked to go residential. The establishments can then be "locked down" in case a positive case is found. In this way we can start large numbers of productive activities and also ensure quick isolation in case of an infection. We had 58 lakh government teachers at the primary level in and 21 lakh at secondary level in 2011. The government can close two-thirds of the schools having less enrollment and shift those students to larger residential schools. That will release about one-half or, say, 40 lakh teachers. Those released can be made Corona Inspectors and their services can be "sold" to the establishments wanting to restart. This will reduce the financial burden on the government. Even otherwise they can be given this duty. Eight persons have been quarantined in my village while four government teachers are getting salary without work. The government can easily ask these teachers to do 8-hour shifts to ensure the success of the quarantine. There will be no additional cost.

Similarly, the numbers of operative railway stations and trains can be reduced by two-thirds. The total numbers of passenger coaches run by the railways was 62,000 in 2016. The railways can reduce these to about 21,000. Each coach will require, say, three Corona Inspectors in 24 hours or total 63,000 Inspectors. The number of employees of the Indian Railways was 12.3 lakhs in 2019. About 20 percent or 2 lakhs can easily be released by the reducing the number of stations and trains. These can be appointed as Corona Inspectors to ensure social distancing in every coach. The number of buses can similarly be reduced, and the released drivers and conductors can be made Corona Inspectors on those that are running.

Needless to say, cost of production in our factories will increase due to the arrangement of the barracks for workers, the fare of trains and buses will increase due to lower occupancy due to social distancing. But, this is important, the economy will resume at full pace.

The second step that must be considered is to implement our traditional wisdom in tackling the corona crisis. We have used turmeric, basil, neem and ginger since ages to increase the immunity of our people. The government of Uttarakhand sent a bottle of sanitiser to my home — free of cost. I heartily congratulate the government for this. But this is only symptomatic treatment. The Union government can send packets containing turmeric and other immunity-increasing material every month to all the households in the country free of cost. The supply of these materials will create jobs and economic activity. The government can also include a bottle of Ganga water in the package. The National Environment Engineering Institute Nagpur has found that waters of Upper Ganga have an "unparalleled" numbers of beneficent viruses called bacteriophages. These can prevent the entry of the disease-creating coronavirus in lungs. Other studies show that inhalation or topical application on skin can lead to the beneficent bacteriophages entering the human body. Unfortunately, our medical establishment is driven by big pharmaceutical companies that do not like cheap, easily accessible and harmless remedies for diseases. They want the government to put its money in ventilators that have to be produced by big companies and plasma therapy that can be subsequently sold by big pharma.

(The writer is formerly Professor of Economics at IIM, Bengaluru)

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