View: Getting back to work — carefully

Economy


By Neeraj Bhargava, Joe Fernandes and Sankar Krishnan

We are still engulfed in the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic. In lockdown, in quarantine, or in isolation. Worrying about an exponentially spreading virus without a proven cure. Struggling to do productive work or earn a livelihood. Uncertain about how long this phase will last. Living in such a state of darkness is unsustainable.

Hope of a new dawn in the form of a ubiquitously available treatment or vaccine appears to be 6-18 months away. A full-on lockdown of the economy for so long a period is unviable. Equally alarming is the possible resurgence of the dreaded virus or its variants. So how do we lead any semblance of a normal life, either in our work or as people with our families?

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Our perspective is that it is time to move beyond the darkness, not just wait for the dawn of our old life, but also accept that we will be in a half-light zone for a while. We should continue to protect ourselves, but also pay equal attention to getting back to work and being productive. We need to create and embrace new rules of engagement for navigating through the half-light zone while minimizing the risk to our health and well-being.

We are attempting to define a few of these rules of engagement. Our idea is to spark a discussion on these rules covering three aspects: 1) New norms of social interactions and behavior; 2) Getting the economy reinvigorated and 3) Enhancing healthcare capabilities and vigilance to prevent or mitigate further epidemic outbreaks. While several government bodies, experts and consultants have laid out such guidelines, they are missing the comprehensiveness and inter-relatedness among these three aspects to lay down a clear way forward.

Managing Social Interactions and Behaviour

Limiting Exposure of the Vulnerable: Evidence suggests that folks over 60 years of age and/or with some pre-existing conditions (such as hypertension, cardiac disease, obesity, auto-immune disorders) are more vulnerable. They should be protected more and potentially restricted from economic and social activities. The less vulnerable younger folks in the meantime should be freed to get back to work. Reducing infection exposure to the more vulnerable also mitigates the pressure on the healthcare system.

While protecting them, we also need to ensure that they are supported at home as well as emotionally and financially.

Identifying, Controlling, and Supporting Hotspots: We should anticipate more outbreaks and have clear tracking, and guidelines for controlling and confining the infected zones to a small area (hotspot). Executing this would involve: a) defining guidelines for identifying hotspots for lock-downs, b) supporting those communities on basic necessities, c) communicating extensively to raise the morale of affected citizens through broadcast or digital media and tracking their progress digitally (as done in South Korea and Taiwan) and d) being prepared to manage several such communities at the same time.

Traveling Together, While Being Apart: Without mobility of people and goods through our trains, metros, buses, cars, taxis, and autos, we would choke our economy. However, this is tricky in the half-light zone, as we still fear infections, thereby necessitating measures such as: a) Reducing number of commuters, b) Spreading commuting across the day, and c) Define new social norms in public transportation. All these measures enhance social distancing and limit crowds in train stations and bus terminals, and in areas of work and social activities. Some options to implement such measures include:

— Odd-even number vehicles allowed on different days (as executed in Delhi to combat pollution and a variant of this in Singapore recently)

— Limiting the numbers going out from a family per day or the number of hours that people can go to a public place (as in Panama) or based on the last digit of the Aadhar card number (similar option chosen in Colombia)

— Changing work times through shifts, reduced workweeks, office occupation limits and emphasis on work-from-home.

— Limiting the number of passengers in transportation (e.g., no standing in buses or trains or maximum two in a car).

Protecting Ourselves at Work and Socially: Masks need to be compulsorily worn and worn right, great examples being Czech Republic and Taiwan moving early to make masks compulsory and lowering spread. No handshakes, touches, hugs, and keeping safe distance must be the new norms. Sanitizers and non-touch dispensers always available and accessible. Anyone with fever, cough, or an infectious ailment should not show up for work. Ensuring clear and safe norms for keeping distance in confined spaces like office areas, conference rooms, cafeterias, warehouses, factories, etc.

Offices, factories, and warehouses need clear norms for sanitizing objects that could hold or carry the virus. Sanitizing packages, bags, mobile phones, floor spaces, equipment and furnishings and keeping the highest levels of hygiene would essential.

These guidelines must be also be customized for industries and activities where such restrictions impede the work itself. For example, actors and models cannot wear masks every moment at work. Physical work like construction may require people to work in proximity and touch the same objects. The industries, where distancing is constraining, will need a different set of norms on how to get work done while still being protected.

Getting the Economy Revved Up

The government has already come up with several plans and initiatives to revive the economy, which are broadly in the right direction. Our aim here is to lay out how to prioritize these plans, specifically keeping quicker reemployment and income generation in mind for large number of people.

The first step is to rapidly reactivate areas essential for basic needs and with a massive impact on reversing the flow of migrant workers away from economic centers. The government has talked about getting our farms back in full flow. There is also a strong case for re-opening the construction, technology, banking, and manufacturing sectors, in addition to ramping up the essential healthcare and food sectors.

Second, several daily individual jobbers and small businesses are in dire need of financial support as provided in countries like the US, the UK and Singapore. Support can be provided in the form of one-time grants, tax postponement or forgiveness, or accelerated buying from the government and public sector.

Third, some troubled industries, such as restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, airlines, malls, etc., may need special financial assistance to stay alive. While often considered critical industries, they employ millions and form the backbone of the middle class. Operating at significantly lower revenue and sustaining employment for them is unsustainable.

Finally, the government itself needs to move faster on relief. Pay GST refunds and export credits on time. Move quickly on policy changes. Ensure there is liquidity in the market. These steps are critical for the economy bounce back.

Enhancing Healthcare Capabilities and Vigilance

The central and state governments continuing to ensure sufficient hospital beds, ventilators and PPE (personal protection equipment) for healthcare professionals will be vital to managing the healthcare burden. Supporting, reinforcing, and augmenting the numbers of medical professionals and paramedics during these difficult times will be the bigger challenge going forward. One example worth emulating is South Korea’s quick mobilization of healthcare professionals from areas with low occurrence to the hotspots.

On testing, we still have a long way to go. Who and how many should get tested? Just the Coronavirus test or also the antibody? Where and how? Who bears the costs? What practical actions follow results that gives bad news? How to ensure usage of apps, such as the upcoming one from Google or Apple, or our own Aarogya Setu to trace cases and identify testing needs with precision? Clear policies and programs on all these issues are essential to track and contain the virus spread.

One ignored area so far is mental health. Lebanon is one country that has integrated mental health helplines as a part of dealing with COVID-19 related uncertainty and anxiety. We can also learn from countries like Vietnam, where the government communicates to citizens several times daily through digital channels, responding promptly to questions and concerns and keeping them informed and upbeat.

As the second lockdown in India draws to a close, people are eagerly expecting a return to normal life. We need the road map to getting back to work, assuming of course, that the virus spread does not get worse. As a rather glib social media meme said about the second lockdown, “May the 4th be with you”. We need that message to resonate across India quickly.

Views expressed are personal. Neeraj Bhargava is the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Rainshine Entertainment. Joe Fernandes is the President & Co-Founder of IITians Influencing India’s Transformation. Sankar Krishnan is the Chief Strategic Advisor, Ramco Group, and Chairperson, Simprints Technology. The three of them previously worked together at McKinsey & Company.



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