While it is too early to draw conclusions, there is no doubt that as a long and protracted battle against COVID-19 extends through summer to the early months of monsoon if not winter, all Governments are pondering the value of keeping citizens at home and away from work
It may sound rather morbid that a normally positive column should choose to discuss the aftermath of COVID at a time when are still engaged with “flattening the curve”. In India, “Jaan” has remained the theme that dominates all news headlines while “Jahaan” or livelihoods has so far taken a back seat, but will be the very real concern to be addressed to avoid the phenomenon called “excess deaths” that will begin to confront us.
The Financial Times in a stunning revelation has suggested that the excess of deaths in the two months of March and April, when compared to the last five years’ average has been almost fifty per cent with less than half attributable to the virus itself. While these are primarily European figures, the US is also believed to have had over fifteen thousand “excess deaths” in just four weeks starting early March, again with half being COVID related. And surprisingly, in the country that has shown the least interest in locking down its people, Sweden, the number of excess deaths have been hardly twelve per cent.
While it is too early to draw conclusions from any of these numbers, there is no doubt that as a long and protracted battle against COVID extends through summer to the early months of monsoon if not winter, all Governments are pondering the value of keeping citizens at home and away from work, and if the rich countries of the West are wondering, imagine the plight of poor countries like India and the rest of South Asia. Here we have been glued to television screens describing the plight of the ten million and more migrants. The Government at the center and the states and even the municipal corporations have displayed enormous sagacity in changing the definitions of red zones, limiting containment and doing their best to get the economy back to life, albeit slowly. The journey from relief to recovery is slowly beginning.
We must take precautions to keep safe ourselves and ensure our families and employees take no risks
Industries which have done well in spite of the crisis have been software exports and BPO and the transition to close to ninety per cent of people working from home has generated hope that this is one industry which will lead in resilience. However, this industry is also dependent on business from its global customers and if key industry segments do not see a revival of primary demand in their economies, one wonders how long it will be before the fortunes of all provider industries including IT and BPO are hit.
In India, we need to be worried about three problems even as migrant workers start filling trains and buses to get back to their families. First is, of course, the minuscule per cent of GDP as stimulus packages that we have been able to afford given our fiscal condition and a pre-existing condition of a declining economy. This, of course, does not bode well for a quick economic recovery. The second is the fact that most large demand areas and many of the supply chains are very reliant on the bustling life in the larger cities many of whom are splashed with red at this point of time. And finally the very sobering thought of how does one deal with the huge problem of putting people back to work, both those who are still in the high employment areas faced with limitations on mobility and of course the large numbers of the temporary workforce who may not be back in a hurry to return to their construction and manufacturing projects.
In the thought process of Relief to Recovery to Resilience, I personally have led many discussions – with industry associations, corporates and the social sector on how we can make this happen. It is encouraging that agriculture is doing well and a three per cent growth in this sector can add nearly a percentage point to GDP growth which otherwise is set to dive into negative territory for the first two quarters and possibly for the whole year. It is also wonderful to see the positive attitude that many NGOs have shown in keeping the activities going, contributing to the relief effort and winning support from their philanthropy and CSR supporters. But whatever we do, it is unlikely we will get away without our share of “excess deaths” in India caused by delayed treatment for all maladies other than COVID and the sheer desperation of people who have lost jobs or are unable to get back to the safety of secure rural family environments.
What can we as caring human beings do in the month of May? For a start, we must take all precautions to keep safe ourselves and ensure our families and employees take no risks. We can also do our bit to avoid deaths due to hunger or sheer desperation in the vicinity of our homes and we can surely contribute some of our wealth to save hundreds or even thousands of lives working with various causes in our neighborhood and if we like to contribute to the national recovery missions that will endeavor to put people back to work. Most important is to be resilient ourselves. Some more shocks are inevitable on the bumpy road ahead but let us look for every opportunity to feel that in this critical time, we were able to make a difference!