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How to sustain a long lockdown

  By now, we have all seen the heart-wrenching images of migrants in Delhi scrambling to board buses out of the city. If even a small number of them were infected with the coronavirus, and infected others in overcrowded transportation services or communities where they return, the positive impact of any lockdown on slowing the spread of the virus may have been subverted.

But let us not vilify the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, who were doing what they could to survive. Indeed, a lockdown was needed to arrest the spread of coronavirus, lest our creaky health system gets overwhelmed. The problem lies not in the earnestness with which the government has acted to combat the crisis, but with the advice it is being given.

Popular perception about how to combat the virus stems from a set of epidemiological models, often built on spotty data and strong assumptions, predicting doomsday scenarios. This has led to, for instance, Johns Hopkins University clarifying that a widely- circulated study by some of its researchers that predicted up to 240 million Indians getting infected was not its opinion. Even if these studies were not credible, the damage was done in terms of political pressure, as the focus shifted to aggressive “social distancing” measures.

The mathematics of this idea is straightforward and appealing. If people in a household have little to no contact with those outside, then the virus has little chance to spread. But what is lost in this simplistic idea, and the egregiously poor use of data, is the “sustainability” of any social distancing or lockdown measure.

We have to ask ourselves whether the manner in which we’ve locked down in India (which may continue beyond three weeks, although the government has said there are no plans of doing this) is amenable to long-term implementation without serious suffering or non-compliance.

In a lockdown, we are asking individuals to sacrifice for the greater good. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi framed the lockdown in precisely these terms in his nationwide address. In the study of political economy, we refer to this as one type of “collective action problem”.

In this type of collective action problem, each person must pay a certain cost (restricting essential items, no outside interaction) so that society, as a whole, can benefit in the future. While policing and social shaming keeps some people indoors, ultimately, the success of a lockdown is predicated upon the willingness of the people to abide by the restrictions. This willingness is a function of the extent to which people have the luxury of having a long-term view on well-being, and the magnitude of costs being imposed on individuals today.

This is where things went awry. The lockdown was imposed in a fashion that was unsustainable for the poorest populations in India.

First, a significant amount of social science research shows that the poor, who live hand-to-mouth, often do not have the luxury to care about the future. Recent work by Anandi Mani and co-authors provides compelling evidence that the poor in India are so consumed by day-to-day survival that they rarely have the psychological space to think about the future.

Second, the costs imposed on the poor, with no income and benefits and limited goods in markets, were severe. This was compounded by the fact that the kind of risk mitigation systems of relying on family and friends, or promising to pay later, that had worked during demonetisation for the poor, were no longer feasible (especially for migrants).

There is still time to adjust and calibrate policy. But to do so, we must stop seeing economic costs and the lockdown to prevent disease as trade-offs. If certain economic conditions are not met at the individual level, a longer lockdown is unsustainable.

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions. First, let’s stop referring to patchwork data or what China and the US did or did not do; India needs a solution that fits its political economy context. As a much poorer country, we must provide significant support materially and in sustenance to the most vulnerable people, not just because it is the ethical thing to do, but because failing to do so risks setting off further negative unintended consequences and compromising the lockdown.

Second, we need to understand which activities are most likely to exacerbate spread. One common feature in pandemics is the role of “super-spreaders” like “patient 31” in South Korea who spread the disease to a large number of people in very public places. Many of us have heard that a person infected with the coronavirus will infect one to three others on average, but this hides significant variations. Most will infect few or none, but super-spreaders have a disproportionate “multiplier effect” as those infected by a super-spreader will then go on to infect others. This is why as we seek to regularise supply chains and perhaps reduce restrictions in the future, big crowds such as the ones seen in Delhi and Mumbai need to be avoided at all costs for the next few months.

Finally, we need to standardise relief efforts across India as much as possible. Charitable and state-specific responses are highly uneven, generating incentives for the most vulnerable populations to move when sufficient benefits are not given. A failure to provide equal relief to India’s hinterland risks triggering another mass movement like we’ve seen in Delhi.

Looking around the world, it is becoming clear that some lockdown measures will be required for months into the future to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. We must begin crafting a policy, taking our political economy seriously, to sustain such a long shutdown.
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