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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

COVID-19 Pandemic and Social Distancing: Key Challenges and Solutions for Industry and Community | Indranil De and Sanjib Pohit

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Indranil De and Sanjib Pohit

India is in the process of opening up after imposing one of the longest and tightest lockdown in the world. The general consensus is that the restrictions on movement would be relaxed in a staggered manner. The fear is that once lockdown is removed, the number of confirmed cases of Coronavirus infection is likely to shoot up once economic activities kick starts unless we maintain reasonable social distance and avoid touching external objects. However, it is difficult to maintain developed country norm in a less developed economy with multilevel of depravation.

As per government circular, industry has to function with 33 percent lower staff to maintain social distancing norm. The firm in the public sector or government enterprises may be functioning with excess employees. For example, there is a peon to carry the bags/files of high officials. So, it is possible for such firms to operate with lower staffs. Surely, this is not the case in privately operated industries! It is unlikely that a profit making firms would operate with excess staff especially since contract workers is the norm in industries. This is the norm adopted by industries for quite some time without having an exit policy of labour in place. Since production process in firms these days operates with conveyor belt, each worker has dedicated role to play at each stage of production. In this setup, a factory cannot operate with 33 percent lower staff. You may provide mask to worker, attempt to have social distance wherever possible. But, production will stop if you would like to impose social distance at the core production process. The government need to have this in mind while framing rules of operation. .
It is clearly evident from 60 days lockdown that loss of livelihood is a serious issue in informal sector without any social security. A day of no work would obviously lead to no wage earned. The available indicates that this is also an issue in the organised sector due to the deepening of contract worker regime, who have not been paid or has suffered wage cut during this period.

Of course, there are other kinds of costs for lockdown. People find it problematic to stay at home as the space for living per person at home is much smaller in India as compared to any other developed nations. According to National Sample Survey Organization’s (NSSO’s), 69th round survey conducted in 2012, the majority of India’s population lives in homes with space smaller than the minimum floor area per person recommended for prison cells. In rural areas, poorest 80 percent households have on average only 93 square feet per person, and in urban areas, poorest 60 percent have on average 94 square feet per person. Thus, applicability of developed countries’ social norm is itself a question.

India is now moving from totalitarian lockdown to lockdown of hotspot. What is the ecosystem for their success? It will be successful if all residents at hotspot stay back at home to break the chain of COVID-19. COVID-19 free environment is like a public good. However, to be able to produce this public good, every residents in hotspot must pay the cost by staying inside their home. But people do not want to bear the cost in restraint, although they expect others to bear the same. People suspect doctors and frontline workers spreading virus while they themselves move around. This free-riding attitude makes it difficult to achieve the collective goal of COVID-19 free environment.
Media may play a very important role in sensitizing and motivating people. But what is more important is face to face communication. Local administration and NGOs may play an important role in this regard. That is why states like Kerala where structures of decentralized governance are stronger have performed better. Neighbourhood groups formed for thrift and credit under Kudumbashree programme in Kerala have done the arduous task of sensitizing, educating and motivating people to follow the new norms. To educate members about government instructions regarding Covid-19 Kudumbashree has formed 1.9 lakh WhatsApp groups with 22 lakh neighbourhood group members.
They have conducted information education and communication (IEC) campaigns through posters emphasizing elderly care, SMS etc. These measures developed trust between the citizens and government. Due to high level of awareness, especially among the women along with better education and primary healthcare system, Kerala could act very swiftly to contain the spread of Coronavirus.

Let’s admit that it is impossible to replicate Kerala model elsewhere in India. Over the years, Kerala has made significant investment, unlike other states, in public health infrastructure from primary healthcare to hospitals. Moreover, these function efficiently and are equipped with supplies and technical/doctors staffs. Thus, they are fast in scaling up testing or early detection. The other states are awfully ill-equipped in this respect.

Probably, rest of India need to look up to ‘Bhilwara model.’ The authorities in Bhilwara, Rajasthan were successful mainly because they could develop trust between citizens and government. The success of the model lies in six very important steps: isolating the district; mapping the hotspots; door-to-door screening; aggressive contact tracing; gearing up quarantine and isolation wards; and developing monitoring mechanism for rural areas. The health team of administration followed up people with influenza-like symptoms twice-a-day. The authorities attempted to reduce the cost of restraint along with sensitizing people. The district administration initiated door-to-door supply of essential groceries, fruits and vegetables and milk. The poor and needy were supported by cooked food along with packets of raw food. All these initiatives reduced the cost of lockdown and developed trust between the citizens and administration. As a result, people reciprocated by staying inside. They stayed inside not because only imposition of Section 144 and other administrative controls, but also reputation developed by district administration through their approach.

To institutionalize the new norms of social restraint, local governments such as Panchayats in rural areas and Municipalities or Municipal Corporations in towns and cities should take a more active role. These local institutions should be able to redesign the norm according to the local context. They should attempt to develop trust between the citizens and the administration. Local governments may redesign the rules of attendance to conform the norms of social distancing for the industry to operate. Mutual monitoring by citizens may reduce administrative cost and necessitates of administrative excess. Basic needs of the people should be fulfilled through administrative mechanisms of the local governments. Thus cost of restraint to the citizens may be minimized. Intense tracing and follow-up activities would signal the citizens the seriousness of authorities regarding efforts towards containing the disease. Door-to-door social campaigning should be conducted to explain the importance of the new norm. Thus, one would realize the incremental value of restraint. The Swedish Model of containing Coronavirus may be looked into in this context. A safer environment can be developed or produced not by the individual effort of citizen or government alone, rather it should be co-produced by both the parties.

(Views are personal. Indranil De and Sanjib Pohit are respectively Associate Professor and Professor at Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and NCAER Delhi)

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