Light at the end of tunnel

While dealing with the Coronavirus epidemic, India must draw a fine line between reaction and response. Its measures must be thoughtful rather than emotive

It has often been said, yet it bears repeating: The Coronavirus epidemic will, in all probability, leave the world looking significantly different from the one we inhabited prior to the outbreak of the infection. The global nature of COVID-19 has ensured that this realisation is not limited to only a few but finds resonance across borders. India’s response to the outbreak has been comparatively swift. Credit, therefore, must be given to all parties, who have fought, and continue to fight the notorious virus.

While praise is well-deserved, we must ensure that our response to this novel threat is swift and decisive. We cannot afford to be reactive. This is where I would like to draw a distinction between “reaction” and “response.” For the purpose of this article, the latter refers to a well-calibrated decision, one that considers all factors and puts things into the context while also keeping in mind the consequences of the former. This should be a decision that utilises the slow thinking part of our brain. A “reaction,” on the other hand, is, as the word suggests, “reactive.” It is our first response to the problem, where what is right in front of us is the only thing we react to. Such a “reaction” is intuitive and born from the fast-thinking part of our brain. In this particular case of Coronavirus, the big thing in front of us is that it is one of the biggest pandemics of our times.

For example, our obsession with the Coronavirus and the news surrounding it is unsurprising. However, it must be put into context. Tuberculosis kills an estimated 1,200 people per day in India. Compare this with the number of Coronavirus deaths, which currently is as low as 10-30 per day. However, our “reaction” to the Coronavirus is much more severe than the one to tuberculosis. Of course, this is an oversimplification of the problem and I do not want to be misunderstood in saying that the current pandemic requires any less effort, vigilance or focus. This could be a terminal mistake for the country and we must exercise as much caution and care as suggested by our leaders and healthcare professionals. After all, any negligence could cost the lives of several other people and we owe a duty of care to each other during these difficult times.

However, the human mind is really strange. We tend to focus a lot more on things that evoke strong “reactions.” For example, terrorism and murders are immense social evils. They take up a chunk of the time of television news hours, space of newspapers and are a hot topic for social discussion. But globally, the number of people who die due to suicide in a year, is almost twice the number who die due to homicide. Yet, we do not as yet have as frequent discussions or serious debates about addressing mental health issues. Instead, we end up focussing more on the problem that evokes greater emotions. We are humans, after all.

In the fight against Coronavirus though, we cannot afford the same reaction. We must be thoughtful rather than emotive in our response. One aspect of the fight against COVID-19 is the immediate decision to impose a nationwide lockdown. There is no denying the fact that this is the only “true” way to fight this dreaded virus at this particular time. However, while implementing the lockdown, we cannot ignore the fact that cure runs the risk of causing more harm than the disease.

Over 76 per cent of Indian workers are engaged in “vulnerable employment.” This was starkly visible when millions of migrant workers from all over the country tried to make their way home on foot. While Governments and civil society groups have come forward in a commendable way to help and ensure that the workers do not die due to hunger, we cannot expect this to be a long-term solution.

A large part of the working force in our country  are either daily wagers or contractual workers. While even for a short period of time, a lockdown is more palpable for salary earners and business owners, for daily wage earners, it is a daily struggle of life and death. Therefore, in my opinion, a complete lockdown will have the effect of pushing the country 25 years back. We cannot, therefore, give in to our intuition.

We must think of more novel and nuanced ways whereby this problem can be tackled. Whether it is about targetting specific hotspots through sealing drives, as being done in certain parts of the national capital by ensuring doorstep delivery of essentials, or something else, our approach cannot afford to be simplistic and carte blanche.

The other thing we must do is, carry forward this deliberative approach, going forward. What this means is that we must ensure that Governments spend more on healthcare and education rather than on statues. We must look at ways by which our spending can be better utilised and how social goals can be achieved more efficiently. Health, for example, has a close causal relationship with cleanliness. In order to enforce cleanliness, we cannot merely rely on advertisement campaigns or  just be content with building  a record number of toilets. Both these measures have been proven to not nudge the people to do the right thing. Instead, what has proven problematic is not the existence of toilets in many areas but the fact that they are often dirty and lack proper waste disposal measures. This dissuades the people from using the toilets even if there may be many around them.

Therefore, the focus needs to be on understanding what are the behavioural reasons behind the people who do not adopt clean habits. Only after understanding these cues can an effective strategy be implemented. One way of ensuring that we understand these social behaviour and calibrate the efficacy of our systems is by ensuring that  maximum amount of accurate information is at our disposal. This cannot be done solely by the Government.

Every Government (just as every person) has an incentive to show itself in the best light. Therefore, we must encourage civil society and the media to provide ground-level feedback. Here, too, there is a chance of bias and fake news being circulated as we have seen from time to time. Thus, any supply or encouragement of fake or unsubstantiated data must be soundly punished.

In the case of Coronavirus, just as in every sphere of our lives, we have our blind spots, too. Unfortunately, for our elected leaders, there is little scope for such blind spots while dealing with a pandemic and balancing our economic interests on the same scale. We must, therefore, be unafraid of diverse views and encourage open communication. The virus does not affect just a few of us but all of us in one way or the other. Therefore, we have little option but to come together to try and ensure there is some light at the end of this long tunnel.

(The writer is a former IPS officer, a former MP and currently a member of the AAP)

Source: The Pioneer