Covid-19: What you need to know today
For 40 days, everyone has been waiting to exhale, but the huge collective exhalation may end up being counterproductive to India’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease.
Life returned to normal with long queues outside liquor shops in most parts of the country, which is as understandable as it was avoidable. There have been many I-need-a-drink moments in the past 40 days. And there will be many more in the next two weeks, perhaps even after.
One such was on Monday, with the release of the Nikkei Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index by IHS Markit. This is essentially a measure of manufacturing activity, and, not surprisingly, it fell sharply in April to 27.4, the lowest since the data started being tracked 15 years ago. It’s also the first time the index has entered contraction zone in almost 11 quarters. A reading above 50 indicates expansion, and one below that contraction. And IHS Markit’s release spoke of both supply- and demand-side disruptions, and a loss of jobs — which doesn’t make for a pretty picture (see page 11).
Monday was chaotic, and while much of it was because of the crowds outside liquor stores, not all was. There were far too many vehicles on the roads, and far too many people outside stores. For 40 days, everyone has been waiting to exhale, but this huge collective exhalation may end up being counterproductive to India’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease. After all, we know the connection between exhalation and the Sars-CoV-2 virus which causes Covid-19.
And this is the situation during a graded exit; technically, the lockdown is still on till May 17. The mind boggles at what might’ve been had the government announced a complete exit from the lockdown on May 3 as some were demanding it do. If the phased exit, and the full one that will follow, are to work, then it will require people to be disciplined and follow the rules. India doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for the number of Covid-19 cases to begin to fall before opening up.
By late morning on Monday, in Delhi, the angry noise of impatient car horns replaced the birdsong that has been in full play (it’s also the breeding season for many birds) for the past 40 days. By early afternoon, though, at least some of the liquor stores were shut down by local authorities (the district magistrates), citing overcrowding, absence of social distancing, and the fact that not everyone in the queues was wearing a mask (see page 2).
In some ways, the PMI data and the unruly crowds outside liquor stores represent the dilemma before the government. It cannot afford to continue with the lockdown because the cure was beginning to hurt almost as much as the disease. India is yet to calculate the economic impact of zero sales for many products, tens of thousands of small businesses collapsing, millions of lost jobs, tens of millions of people pushed back into the same poverty from which they had successfully clawed their way out barely a few years ago — but it is certain to be high.
No country should have to make the choice between lives and livelihoods — the reason why the understanding of Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to life has grown to include livelihoods — but this is one of the trade-offs countries are having to make in their policy response to the pandemic. As this column has pointed out, Sweden, with roughly double the number of deaths as India, but with only half the number of cases, sees its own response, of not locking down, as a success -- an opinion this writer doesn’t share.
The importance of protecting both is why a relief and stimulus package for businesses is necessary. It was expected that India would announce one in late March. It’s early May and we are still waiting.