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24th April – Editorials/Opinions Analyses

Contents

  1. The COVID-19 paradox in South Asia
  2. How will India emerge out of the lockdown?
  3. Protection for protectors
  4. Fishing in troubled waters during a pandemic
  5. Leveraging the COVID crisis

THE COVID-19 PARADOX IN SOUTH ASIA

Focus: GS-III Disaster Management

Context

The first person tested positive for COVID-19 on January 21 in the United States and on January 30 in India. Roughly three months later, on April 20, the total number of infections was 7,23,605 in the U.S. and 17,265 in India, accounting for 31.2% and 0.75% of the world total, while the number of COVID-19 deaths was 34,203 in the U.S. and 543 in India, making up 21.7% and 0.33% of the world total. The share of the two countries in world population, by contrast, is about 4% and 18%, respectively.

A puzzling situation

  • It is even more surprising that a comparison with South Asia — Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — yields similar results.
  • Income per capita in South Asia is just 16% that of the world, and a mere 4% of that in industrialised countries. One-third of the world’s poor live in South Asia, so absolute poverty is high and nutrition levels are low. Population density in the subcontinent is among the highest in the world.
  • The outcome, then, is puzzling, if not paradoxical. Compared with North America, Western Europe and East Asia, or their own population size, the number of infections and deaths in South Asia is far lower.
  • Of course, it is plausible to argue that, unlike those parts of the world, South Asian countries are in the early stages where community transmission has not gathered momentum. An explosive growth in infection numbers could yet surface later, or in a second round.
  • Past experience of the Spanish influenza in 1918, when India accounted for 18-20 million of the estimated 50 million deaths in the world, or conventional thinking even now, would have led to the opposite conclusion.

Two possible explanations

  • First, the reality might be much worse than the statistics suggest because the total number of infections is almost certainly underestimated, as testing has been nowhere near enough, given the scarcity of testing kits and the massive size of populations. Improved statistics might change the numbers but cannot transform the asymmetry emerging from the above comparisons.
  • Second, the lockdowns imposed by governments in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, which started in the last week of March and continue until April 27 or longer, have clearly made a difference. The lockdown in India, straddling its vast geography, is perhaps among the most stringent in the world.
  • Other countries which have imposed lockdowns, say in Western Europe, with public health systems that are far superior, have not managed to slow down the phenomenal spread in the number of infections as much.

A possible hypothesis

  • It has been suggested that countries which have mandatory BCG vaccinations against tuberculosis are less susceptible to COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.
  • The BCG vaccine seems to have a stimulating effect on the immune system that goes well beyond tuberculosis. For that reason, perhaps, some countries are running trials of BCG against COVID-19.

Lives and livelihoods

  • Obviously, lockdowns have also mitigated the spread. In doing so, they have saved lives, but at the same time, they have also taken away livelihoods. In South Asian countries, almost 90% of the workforce is made up of the self-employed, casual labour on daily wages, and informal workers without any social protection. The lockdowns have meant that hundreds of millions of people who have lost their jobs, hence incomes, have been deprived of their livelihoods, imposing a disproportionate burden on the poor and those who survive just above the poverty line.
  • The problem will not vanish after lockdowns are lifted. Economies that have been shut down for six weeks or longer will be close to collapse. I
  • Rapid economic growth in the past 25 years had enabled South Asian countries to bring about a significant reduction in absolute poverty, even though it was associated with rising inequality.

HOW WILL INDIA EMERGE OUT OF THE LOCKDOWN?

Focus: GS-III Disaster Management

Restarting economic activity

  • Only 17% of the employed have salaried jobs; one-third are casual labourers. According to the World Bank, 76% are in ‘vulnerable employment’ in India.
  • We, therefore, need to ensure that the poor are not forgotten or abandoned as we protect ourselves, roughly the top 30%, from the viral infection.
  • In most circumstances, such as in the IT sector, work from home options should be made mandatory for the next few months.
  • When it comes to essential activities such as public transport, ensuring physical distancing, face mask use, and enforcing respiratory hygiene such as cough etiquette is essential.

What happens to the self-employed and migrant labourers?

  • The lockdown will probably be partially lifted, but it must be accompanied by a massive increase in the relief budget, currently at about 0.5% of GDP, for the most vulnerable.
  • Existing programmes of social support, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), and pensions need more financial allocations.
  • The PDS today only covers about 60% of the population, even though the legally mandated coverage under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is two-thirds of the population.
  • The government is using population figures from the 2011 census to determine coverage.
  • The first step should be to universalise the PDS, for up to a year, by allowing anyone from the 40% without ration card the opportunity to apply for a temporary card. The Centre needs to make grain available to the States and they can do the rest.
  • As far as the NREGA is concerned, the government needs to allow greater flexibility to States in deciding how to disburse cash. Several States have successfully disbursed cash in hand in the past, and have done so without much corruption.

About Migrant Labourers

  • For migrants, the government must provide transport, assisting them to return home, just as it flew back Indians stuck abroad and helped the students stuck in Kota.
  • Those who are willing to stay, must be provided dignified shelter in schools, community halls, along with cooked food.
  • While their healthcare needs are to be addressed by the public health system, the government has to ensure their subsistence by providing necessary ration and medicines.

Criticism of Aarogya Setu App

  • One, the app needs smartphones. Less than one-fifth of Indians own smartphones.
  • Two, the reliability of the technology (using Bluetooth to detect contacts) has been questioned by computer scientists in India.
  • Three, it entails an unnecessary and unjustified privacy invasion, which nevertheless is projected as necessary.
  • Authoritarian governments across the world are using the pandemic as an opportunity to normalise unprecedented levels of mass surveillance.
  • Finally, Kerala shows us that contact tracing can be done, and possibly better, by utilising human resources. We must guard against techno-solutionism as well as privacy invasions.

How can we prepare for a future pandemic?

  • Today, public spending on health in India is barely 1% of GDP, compared with more than 10% in countries like France and Germany. There needs to be a serious discussion on resetting our priorities — not focusing on overall GDP growth only, but also on where GDP growth is coming from.
  • It is time that we start investing in strengthening the public health system. There is disproportionate spending on curative services and heavy reliance on insurance.
  • Public health should be managed by a specialist cadre — epidemiologists, social scientists, economists, bio-statisticians, behavioural scientists.
  • Our response has been mostly reactive — in terms of measures such as scaling up purchase of equipment during a crisis.

What if the government has to extend the lockdown beyond May 3?

  • In the future, we should follow an evidence-based approach in deciding to extend the lockdown, the priority should be to help migrant labourers reach their homes.
  • Once the lockdown is lifted, the virus transmission will ensue in every part of the country.
  • Nearly 90% of the IT workforce can be permitted to work from home, with minor logistical measures.
  • Strict enforcement of cough etiquette, use of masks, and physical distancing should be the new normal.
  • Avoiding large congregations, malls or events should help at least for the next few months till a vaccine or a drug is available.
  • The government should focus on importing test kits and equipment, but also on developing and manufacturing our test kits.

PROTECTION FOR PROTECTORS

Focus: GS-III Disaster Management

Why in news?

  • Since the first case of novel coronavirus infection in India was reported in end-January, many healthcare workers have been subjected to abuse and violence in the line of duty.
  • Most of the attacks have been on healthcare personnel sent to localities to collect samples from people who are suspected to have been infected or have come in contact with those who have tested positive for the virus.
  • Some doctors returning home from duty have been prevented from entering their homes and in some cases, even asked to vacate their premises.
  • The Union Cabinet’s decision to promulgate an ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to make acts of violence against medical personnel a cognisable and non-bailable offence and also provide compensation in case of injury or damage or loss to property is thus commendable.

Reasons

  • Very often, the abuse and violence against healthcare workers after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country has been due to fear and ignorance.
  • The communal colour given to the COVID-19 epidemic after the large religious congregation was held in mid-March by the Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin, Delhi initially led many in the community to avoid coming forward to get tested. In many cases, the fear of stigma and isolation resulted in attacks on healthcare workers who had gone to collect samples from those who were part of this congregation.
  • In other instances, the wrong messaging that getting infected by the virus meant certain death, in order to achieve maximum compliance with the shutdown, unwittingly led to a fear psychosis.

Way Forward

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers who are forced to work long hours treating patients infected with the highly infectious virus, and even when protective gear in the form of gloves, face mask and personal protective equipment are scarce, need more empathy, compassion, unmitigated support and cooperation from the society.

Symbolic gestures such as clapping hands and lighting candles in recognition of their selfless service during these trying times do not bolster their morale as much as understanding and support does.


FISHING IN TROUBLED WATERS DURING A PANDEMIC

Focus: GS-II International Relations

Why in news?

Even as several countries struggle to cope with the challenges posed by COVID-19, Beijing’s military moves in the contested South China Sea continue to take place unabated.

China has conducted military drills and deployed large-scale military assets to the maritime area, while officially celebrating strides made in exploiting disputed energy resources in the sea.

Beijing has a long-term strategy to gain advantage in the South ...

Other Countries say: Strategy for expansion

Vietnam:

  • Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, causes property losses and endangers the lives, safety and legitimate interests of the Vietnamese fishermen
  • Chinese actions also run counter to agreements reached by Hanoi and Beijing’s leaders and the proposed Code of Conduct that would govern all interested parties in the South China Sea dispute.

Indonesia:

  • There have been incidents involving Chinese fishing vessels and the Chinese Coast Guard with Indonesian fishing vessels in waters around the Natuna Sea as well.
  • China’s illegal fishing near the Natuna Sea carries global consequences, reminding regional governments of Beijing’s expanding claims to the South China Sea through which one-third of the world’s maritime trade flows.

Philippines:

  • There were satellite images showing a Chinese military plane landing on Kagitingan Reef in the West Philippine Sea in late March.
  • There are also reports that China recently opened a research station on Kagitingan and Zamora Reef, also in the West Philippine Sea, to gather data on the ecology, geology, and environment in the Spratlys.

These encroachments and advances by China in the South China Sea not only dampen China’s image globally, and affect its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours, but also raise questions on why it continues its assertiveness in the disputed waters when most of the claimant states are having to contend with the challenges posed by COVID-19.

Window of opportunity

  • Vietnam has been an ardent supporter of the U.S.’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) carried out in the South China Sea. China has always taken a strong stand against these FONOPS of the U.S.
  • At present, Vietnam is the chair of the ASEAN and will be presiding over the discussions on the Code of Conduct which has been a work in progress for long. Vietnam has always been in favour of non-claimant countries or external players having an active voice and calling out China for its growing assertiveness in these contested waters.
  • As China seeks to restore its global credibility, creating tensions in the South China Sea should be the least of its priorities.
  • A more generous China during a global pandemic might go a long way in ensuring its global ascent.

LEVERAGING THE COVID CRISIS

Focus: GS-III Indian Economy, GS-II International Relations

The Opportunity

  • The corona crisis has presented India with an unexpected, longer-horizon opportunity to expand its manufacturing base and play a larger role in revamped global supply chains.
  • With its economy already struggling pre-pandemic India now faces its lowest growth in 40 years, a possible doubling of its fiscal deficit, and job losses that, by one estimate, could exceed 100 million.
  • Crisis often begets opportunity, however, and India should now move quickly to take advantage of a longer-term opening spawned by the sudden but inevitable global rush to reduce economic dependence on China.
  • To do this successfully a number of fundamental changes in policy and mindset are necessary, particularly regarding foreign investment.

Five steps that India should take to seize manufacturing and supply chain opportunities:

  1. The Prime Minister should reinforce that India is eager and is ready to step up as global trade and investment flows shift. In announcing a Make in Global India (MGI) he should emphasise India’s intention to adjust its policies to compete aggressively for investment in the emerging international manufacturing and supply chain architecture.
  2. The Prime Minister should appoint a Make in Global India special envoy as his personal representative to reach out to global companies that are reshaping their supply chains.
  3. The Make in Global India initiative should specifically target Japanese and US companies. Japan has just announced a massive programme for Japanese companies to shift production from China, including $2.2 billion in incentives to move manufacturing to third countries like India. In a survey in the U.S.- 76% of the respondents have either started diversifying manufacturing away from China or are planning to because of protectionist policies.
  4. To provide clear signposts of its seriousness, the government should immediately roll out policy initiatives and make some iron-clad pledges on foreign investment.  These should include: (a) an end to the “tax terrorism”; (b) introduction in Parliament of overdue labour market and land acquisition reforms that are key to attract significantly increased FDI; and (c) a symbolically potent commitment to abide forthrightly by international arbitration decisions.
  5. The government should stop publicly belittling foreign investors as well as bilateral/ multilateral trade and investment agreements.
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