Are the measures announced by the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) sufficient to complement the three-week lockdown? Thousands of migrant workers trudging their way to faraway homes in sheer despair over loss of livelihood provide a graphic answer.
There is much more the government must do by way of, one, relief; two, scaling up the healthcare system to take care of a flood of Covid-19 patients as India appears to enter the stage of community spread; and three, rebuilding the impaired economy, particularly the informal sector, after the scourge.
India does not have the capacity, meaning about a million beds at intensive care units (ICUs), to adopt a strategy of letting the virus spread and treating the small proportion, say 5%, of those infected who would need ventilators at ICUs, while the rest of the population acquire what epidemiologists call herd immunity.
Nor does India have the technological or organisational capacity to aggressively test every person who shows Covid-19-like symptoms, quarantine everyone who tests positive, trace all their contacts, test every one of them, quarantine those who test positive, trace their contacts, and so on, to imitate Taiwan, Singapore or South Korea. That leaves every healthy person isolating themselves at home as the only alternative.
But this lockdown brings large swathes of the economy to a grinding halt, killing the incomes of the vast majority of India’s workers toiling away in the informal economy. Besides, people who live in slums and refugee camps, such as of the riot victims in Northeast Delhi, do not have the luxury of social distancing.
Along with advance notice for the lockdown, the government should have announced measures to provide relief to these vulnerable people. The least the government could have done was to run special trains for migrants to return home before the lockdown began.
Now, the Centre has asked state governments to provide the travelling migrants with food and shelter. Some states are acting on the directive and even offering transport. This is not complete without transfer of money to the accounts of migrant workers. How can this be done?