How quickly the nation’s leadership learns from these past six months and changes its approach will be vital for managing the pandemic and achieving economic recovery
Supply chain disruptions have also been different depending on nature of businesses and other activities that various states specialise.
Six months after India’s initial drastic lockdown, with the release of the first-quarter GDP numbers and a continued increase in Covid-19 cases, how should we assess the situation, looking back to those months, and also looking forward? The fall in GDP, among the worst in the world, reflects the severity and poor planning of India’s lockdown. This is a familiar story, and the GDP figures just confirm the damage. Of course, one quarter’s loss of output would be less important if followed by a quick recovery.
In previous columns, I have argued that India did not do enough to bridge the disruption of the lockdown for small businesses, and this will make a recovery slower and more difficult. But, now it is emerging that the real problem with achieving a rapid recovery lies in the management of the pandemic. If the pandemic is not controlled, then no government economic policy will be enough for a full recovery.
In earlier columns, I have suggested that, given its resource and institutional constraints, India’s management of the pandemic was about as good as could be expected. But now, as infections continue to climb, and comparisons with other countries are made, it looks like that assessment was too rosy. India has higher rates of infections and deaths than its poorer neighbours, including Afghanistan as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
It may be that those other countries are undercounting more than India, but such an explanation seems unlikely. Aside from these direct statistics, other evidence, from antibody tests, suggests that true infection rates may be many times higher, making community spread much more likely than the official data suggest.
There is also the concern that the economic disruption so far will create a negative health spiral, in which those without livelihoods will suffer other health problems, with fewer resources to treat them, and where increasing Covid-19 cases will crowd out treatment for all kinds of other illnesses. This was a worry right from the start of the pandemic, even in more developed countries, but India may face this situation more starkly in the next months.
What is to be done? In late August, in a joint statement, the Indian Public Health Association, the Indian Association of Epidemiologists, and the Indian Association of Social and Preventive Medicine called for the lockdown to be discontinued. This recommendation is a reflection of the failure of the government to use the initial drastic lockdown to plan and implement an effective public health strategy.
These experts want testing that is more targeted than the current policy of trying to track and test most contacts of new cases. The rationale is that these newly identified cases are too small a fraction of actual infections. However, innovation might help: a cheap and quick home test, even if not too reliable, might allow rapid expansion of testing and more accurate containment of those who are infected.
If the number of cases is going to keep increasing, then the obvious place where the government needs to put resources is in healthcare, including facilities, equipment and personnel. If trained personnel are not available, then they could be brought in temporarily from other countries. There are thousands of medical personnel of Indian origin who might be willing to help in the kind of emergency situation that India may face.
As public health experts suggest, testing should be targeted to protect healthcare workers, and they should also receive the best protection and equipment possible. The rate of return to such expenditures is obviously very high if the recovery of the entire economy is at stake.
The central government could also help by being more honest about the situation, by being willing to consult experts more readily, and by communicating more effectively with citizens. The last of these is easy to underestimate, but it is critical to get it right. Initially, the result of government communications was panic and fear. Now, weariness has set in, and people appear to be ignoring precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.
This is a time for repeated reminders from those in power to those whom they notionally serve. My impression is that frontline workers and state governments have been making strong efforts, but as one moves up the hierarchy of power and authority, the level of performance seems to attenuate.
It is a reasonable conjecture that over-centralisation is hurting India now more than ever. This refers not only to the hierarchies of government but also the concentration of decision-making at the highest level. The pandemic requires rapid and comprehensive flows of information, along with the capacity to process this information and make good decisions. At the top, this means being able to absorb diverse ideas and bad news, to seek out expert judgments, and to adjust rapidly.
Beating the coronavirus is different from defeating political opponents or charming citizens eager for hope and change. How quickly the nation’s leadership learns from these past six months and changes its approach will be vital for managing the pandemic and achieving economic recovery and sustained growth.
Professor of Economics, University of California. Views are personal