This is in response to V’s comment on an earlier post ‘Coping with Delta‘. Here are some thoughts on why I think that the the generalized lockdowns imposed by national and state governments in the second wave were unnecessary in the way they were imposed. This statement needs qualifications – I am writing specifically about rural areas and that the observations are about the second wave of the pandemic. In this, I am considering both – the state and central governments. The choice between locking down and restricting people to stay at home across towns and villages versus not locking down while facing a highly infectious virus that can cause deaths, is a choice between two evils. Could we have weighed our options better? Could we have not relied only on the policemen’s lathi and brute force? Instead, was there a way to steer out of this situation without the costs that we are now witnessing on the streets of rural India?
These questions become important given that there is little evidence on any of the lockdown measures being effective in reducing deaths. On the contrary, allowing for economic activity with specific restrictions would have surely helped the people who have been pushed into a deep spiral of depleted household incomes, impoverishment and lost livelihoods that will take years to return. Is that a better outcome?
By the time the pandemic’s second wave struck there was significant information and experience that governments had gained about the virus, its behaviour, emergency response, preparedness, economic functioning etc. More importantly, there was clear evidence that the restrictions and lockdowns affected various sections of the society with varying intensity. It was not hidden (on the contrary media was overdosing on it) that low income groups, informal workers and those whose work could just not switch to a computer screen were getting hit very hard.
What is the price that societies are willing to pay to keep its members from harm? While it is not an easy one to answer, we know that some sections kept themselves away from harm at the cost of others.
My reasons for suspecting that pandemic response in the second wave was not reasonable are:
- There is a lot more to a society’s functioning than just locking itself inside from a pandemic. We have lost on so many other fronts – which are as integrally linked to individual and household well-being, especially when we couldn’t afford to. No government, state or central, is in a position to fill-in the welfare needs of the affected population now. There is only food aid and a tiny amount of cash help to select groups.
- On the effect of lockdown, here is another – ‘Excess malaria deaths caused by pandemic driven shortfalls in prevention and treatment efforts will probably dwarf direct deaths from covid-19 in sub-Saharan Africa’ the WHO warns (https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4711). In numbers, ‘Malaria killed 409 000 people in 2019 and 411 000 in 2018, most of them babies and toddlers in sub-Saharan Africa.’ as stated by the WHO.
- Analysis suggests that people aged 45 and above accounted for 90 percent of Covid deaths. We needed a tragetting strategy and not a blanketing lockdown. We could have kept <45 in jobs and kept that segment of labour force employed and taking home the necessary income.
- The reach and control of state has reached an unprecedented level in this pandemic. Every aspect of individual freedom and discretion was overshadowed by the state authorities, all in the name of pandemic response. While in the first wave it seemed reasonable (and I agreed with it) in the first couple of months, we see that nearly fifteen months down the line it continues to gain strength and control. This will have long term ramifications for democracies. While the idea of a welfare state is much loved, it cannot be sustained without robust economic growth which the modern state cannot guarantee alone.
- On education – there could have been alternatives to keeping children out of school for nearly one and a half academic year. In rural areas where educational attainment is already low and children struggle between school’s demanding nature and household’s pressure to contribute to family income, the loss on this front will lead to a fair number of children not resuming school again. A family that works with us on the farm has been supplementing its income by sending their 12 year old boy for farm work. The child earns INR 160/day for hand-sowing cotton seeds on farms. He earns INR 130/day for helping with fertilizing farms.
- On agriculture – clearly, this is an area that needed more thought compared to the response from governments’. Every single farm activity as well as input has seen price increase. A lot of it is due to the backlogs created by ceasing activity and then the demand for workers as soon as restrictions were lifted. This led to needless increase in seed prices, freight costs, wages for crop maintenance etc.
In the above list the politics of science, research, vaccine development and political interests is not mentioned. That will surely complicate the assessment of pandemic response further.
Overall, these aspects could have been helped a bit by not imposing a general lockdown. The cumulative cost of these will perhaps be higher and a longer setback than the pandemic’s direct cost in terms of lives lost. The long tail effect of the pandemic will continue to emerge. More likely, they will turn out to be far more than what the pandemic will end up inflicting directly on us. I do recognize that the pandemic has imposed hard choices on all of us – individuals and governments.