Coming to terms with the post-Corona world

Note:- This post, about post-corona world, was first published in my blog at the Times of India website. You can read it here.

Even if you are living under a rock somewhere, you have heard of Covid-19, or Corona, as it is being called fondly. Those ubiquitous mediums of information, internet and smartphones, have ensured that we get a regular stream of facts about the pandemic, its progression in different parts of our cities, states and countries. The news of encouraging breakthroughs and miracle drugs keep up our morale in these dreary times. Hardly anybody had thought last year that world’s strongest economies and most powerful armies would be so helpless before a tiny virus. And yet, here we are. At the time of writing, the disease has been responsible for more than 2,70,000 deaths world over. Thankfully, it has been partially under control in India due to sagacity of the leaders and the people.

Economic impact of COVID19

The economic impact has been devastating. Economists are predicting a return of Great Depression of 1929. The industrial output has fallen to almost nil, trade with outside world remains restricted to essential supplies and workers in organised sector are staring at mass unemployment. The unorganised sector has almost completely shut down and migrant workers are headed to home in their millions. It is the biggest crisis we are seeing since Second World War, and maybe worse in economic terms than Second World War.

New realities of post-corona world

We are already starting to come to terms with new realities. Work from home will be the new norm in many companies for a considerable time in future. Phrases like social distancing, flattening the curve and herd immunity have entered our lexicon. Schools, colleges, coaching institutes are slowly but surely establishing an online presence and creating online courses. There are plans for innovative ways to take exams from home. Still, we shall understand the full impact of Covid-19 and the resulting slowdown in coming years. However, I mention certain strategies for some groups of people on how to deal with the impacts of coronavirus.

Most people think that it would not impact agriculture and food supply chain. However, the customer preference for hygienic food would increase now and may have negative impact on roadside vendors of vegetables, food, cooked food and snacks and small restaurants etc. This is the time for pushing food processing. Guidelines of FSSAI regarding restaurant hygiene are not enforced in India in normal times. The crisis should be used to start enforcing these laws strictly. Apart from the health benefits this will also promote consumer confidence in eating out. Many states are already making changes in much delayed APMC reforms so that the stranglehold of mandis on agriculture market is broken and consumers can get fresh and cheap food directly from the farms. Vendors selling food items would do well to adopt some hygienic practices like wearing a mask, gloves and a hairnet while hawking their goods. Using some Indian jugaad to cover the cart would also be welcomed by the customers.

What is true of vendors is also true of any person who closely interacts, or hopes to interact, with a large number of people daily. This will include service providers like hairdressers, bank tellers, and shopkeepers/shop attendants of all kind. Industrial establishments already have certain codes and those should be enforced. With social distancing the new norm, many MSMEs, especially SMIs will have to make changes in their working conditions. We may see some rise in inflation if this is done and enforced, as the cost has to be passed on to the customer.

Education sector has more or less adapted to the change with schools, colleges, coaching institutes and independent educators migrating to the video conferencing apps. However, many chinks remain. Connectivity is an issue in most of the country. Out internet infrastructure is not robust enough. Another big issue is too much screen time for children. It is clear that even if all the chinks are removed, online classes cannot replace offline classrooms. So schools have to be innovative. The primary objective at present is social distancing, which can be ensured by reducing class sizes by half. There can be evening and morning sessions at school or even 3 day week for two sets of students. Of course, this cannot continue for long. Schools will have to come back to normal schedules. In the long term, schools have an important role in ensuring children are made aware of the correct hygienic practices. 

Policies for a post-corona world

The function of governments is to response correctly to such crises, take policy steps and ensure future preparedness. The response to the crises consisted mostly of lockdown, quarantines, ensuring essential supplies, ramping up the capacity of health system and production of PPEs and medicines domestically. The stage is about to end and we have done mostly fine considering the size of our country and our health system. People have generally been disciplined and our corona warriors have done well to manage the situation. Our charities, political parties and daanveer individuals have ensured that people get food supplies regularly. Some policy steps have been already taken, including cash transfers, EMI suspension, tweaking of taxes on certain items etc. Sensing the crisis as an opportunity, many states have reformed APMC laws and suspended many labour laws that suffocated investment. Govt plans are in the works to ensure that companies wishing to relocate to India from China are given best terms, including one day time for permits, readily available land etc. Of course easy labour laws will also help a lot. Other imperatives should be to increase energy production and improve logistics infrastructure. This opportunity should not go to waste, else we will miss the bus on fourth industrial revolution.

Future preparedness for such lockdowns is of prime importance. This will not be the last viral epidemic. Apart from that, climate change and other unforeseen emergencies may force us to lockdown again in future. It is thus important that we evolve a standard operating procedure. This should incorporate learnings from current lockdown including facilitating the huge migration, dealing with religious gatherings and ensuring essential supplies move freely. Every small unit of administration has collected huge amounts of data regarding shops of essential supplies and list of volunteers, these lists and data should be preserved and updated for future use. A govt portal where vendors and volunteers can self-register and correct their details could be an easy way to do it. 

The future is uncertain and the plan for it should be flexible enough to permit discretion by local level administration. Coming to terms with the post-corona world will be one of the key challenges of next decade.

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