Post-Corona Recovery: Will Creating ‘Healthy Hotspots’ Help?

Will creating containment zones for healthy people amid COVID, as we are for patients, help maintain supply chain?

5 min read
A worker sprays disinfectant at Nandgram village, marked as a COVID-19 hotspot. Image used for representational purposes.

Given the fact that people are dying or struggling for life on a ventilator, ‘Save the economy’ would be a callous call-out. The ‘Life vs Livelihood’ debate is back to the fore. Thousands of migrant workers gathering at the Bandra station braving the police’s lathi charge, has exemplified this dilemma at hand. These daily-wage earners simply cannot afford a sustained lockdown.

From past experience or through logical extrapolations of the current situation, it is safe to say that in one way or the other, we will overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

When I say ‘one way’, I am being optimistic that the lockdowns will successfully flatten the curve or the scientific community will be successful in inventing a cure. But when I say the ‘other way’, I am being pessimistic and assuming that COVID-19 will take its toll. The surviving ones will be those who would have recovered from COVID-19, and some sort of herd immunity would have developed, that would keep the remaining unaffected lot safe.

Man-Made Disasters Post Pandemic, And How to Prepare for Them

So, one way or the other, as I said, we are going to overcome the crisis. Our past experiences in disaster management have shown us that, following every natural disaster in India, a man-made disaster is imminent.

In this case, the man-made disaster could be a famine due to a disrupted agricultural supply chain, a battered economy, or the poor rendered with no purchasing power to buy even the essentials.

In India, April happens to be harvest time. Due to non-availability of labourers for the harvest, the crops will go to waste. And for the labourers, there is no work. Given the Indian poor’s low capacity to save, the labourers with their little or no savings stare at a bleak future. The healthy labourers can’t be working from home like you or me, but they need employment more than anyone else. The agricultural sector needs labourers – and the labourers need work. There is demand and there is supply, but why can’t demand meet supply? Because of total lockdown.

The 20 April guidelines indicate that the government is indeed aware of the repercussions of continued lockdown on the lives of the poor, and the agricultural supply chain. The guidelines allow agriculture and allied activities to be fully functional in the ‘non-containment zones’. The transportation of goods is being permitted without any distinction of ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’. Though the intent seems to be in the right direction, the modus-operandi seems displaced.

Creating ‘Healthy’ Containment Zones Amid COVID

Just like we are cordoning off containment areas from places where we are seeing a lot of COVID cases (hotspots), we must create new containment areas for the healthy as well. If the objective of the former containment area is to arrest the spread of the virus, the objective of the latter containment zone must be to keep them healthy. This time, let us try cordoning off villages with large farms; entry must be allowed to only those who are tested negative for COVID-19, and measures must be taken that the infections don’t spread to these zones. The tested healthy workers can be safely transported to these areas and they can work here free from any COVID-19 fear. The food produced can be harvested and won't go to waste. The supply won't be disrupted.

The similar ‘testing the healthy’ approach can be scaled up to the entire supply chain so that the supply chain is not disrupted.

The nightmare of migrant labourers walking all the way to their home is still fresh in our minds. How do we ensure we don’t recreate a similar disaster in the process of trying to get the migrant labourers back to the farms? The Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses, for example, are functioning with less than 10 percent capacity, let's use such public transportation services to board the labourers post COVID-19 testing and safely transport them to these ‘healthy containment zones’. Utilising the migrant workforce would get the supply chain back up and running.

How India Can Prep For Post-COVID Economic Recovery

Like any other intervention, this intervention too has its share of trade-offs. Every test done on a healthy person deprives the opportunity for a potential COVID-19 patient to get tested. Given the limited availability of testing kits, this is a serious question that threatens the very foundation of the idea of ‘testing the healthy’. Given the fact that this might be the only definite way of saving the agricultural supply chain and avoid famine in the recovery and post-recovery phase. An optimality must be reached between the number of testings we do of the healthy and potential COVID-19 patients.

But remember if we are successful with this ‘healthy containment zone’ in the agricultural sector, we can try and replicate this in the manufacturing sector as well.

The recent Economic survey emphasises on the need to create more jobs by ‘assembling in India’. The survey aspires for India to be a part of the ‘Global Value Chain’ for this purpose. Recently, Japan announced 243.5 billion yen (USD 2.26 billion) compensation for Japanese companies to shift out of China and manufacture elsewhere.

India, with its labour force, could be an attractive destination for such companies, but so would be other developing countries.

The ‘healthy containment zones’ might be an attractive way to integrate early into the global value chain, and that would give us a head start when the economy gets going. The countries are so engrossed in addressing the problem at hand that nobody is preparing for recovery and the post-recovery phase. But India can think ahead and prepare for the recovery phase and emerge stronger.

How to Stop Agricultural Supply Chain From Disrupting

Though the solution provides a way to keep our agricultural supply chain intact and offers a way to productively engage the migrant workers and give them purchasing power, this solution is fraught with a few limitations. Forgoing the opportunity cost, the economic cost for implementing might be substantially high. The assumption that these healthy containment zones can be kept healthy is a very daring one.

But desperate times require desperate measures. This might be our chance at stopping the agricultural supply chain from getting disrupted, and also to use the disruption to surge ahead and establish ourselves as an economic powerhouse.

(Siva Prasad did his Bachelors and Masters in Physics from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He is a recipient of the prestigious INSPIRE fellowship, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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