Is Govt Doing Enough to Fight Corona On Health & Economic Fronts?

‘Success stories’ of tackling Corona within India, like in Kerala, must be highlighted, to take forward the example.

Published24 Mar 2020, 09:24 AM IST
Opinion
5 min read

The events of the past few weeks have served as a grave reminder of the challenges of living in a globalised world. The benefits of globalisation and its impact on human progress can never be understated. However, every once in a while, through global financial crises or through pandemics such as the one we are currently witnessing with COVID-19, we are also reminded of its perils.

What started in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, has within a few months, impacted over 267,000 people in 185 countries, unfortunately killing more than 11,000 people as of 22 March 2020.

Looming Global Financial Crisis; What Govts Are Doing & Will Continue To Do

The economic and social impact of this pandemic will only unfold over time, but the early signs are not comforting. An estimated 25 million jobs are likely to be lost due to the COVID-19 crisis, pushing millions more into underemployment and working poverty. With supply chain disruptions impacting almost every sector – including Information Technology, Manufacturing, Entertainment, Travel and Retail – stock markets across the world have witnessed their worst performances since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Global income is expected to shrink by as much as USD 2 trillion in 2020, with developing economies alone bearing as much as USD 220 billion of the impact.

The resulting economic shock and looming financial crisis is expected to push the global annual growth below 2.5 percent in 2020.

Despite the looming economic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, our focus in the immediate short-term should continue to remain on containing the outbreak.

Governments across the world and within nations should, and will continue, their concerted pursuit in efforts to breaking the chain of community outbreaks, identifying the infected individuals and treating/quarantining them, minimising disruptions to personal and professional life to the extent possible, and developing a vaccine for effective treatment of the disease.

Fighting Coronavirus Crisis: Examples Indian Govt Should Be Looking To

In this regard, it is comforting to see technology-led solutions such as global and national dashboards to track the spread of infections and mortality. Equally comforting are the first steps towards developing a vaccine, although it is too early to celebrate or breathe a sigh of relief. Over the past two decades, we have experienced global pandemics including SARS, MERS, Ebola and Zika.

In responding to these, governments, NGOs, international health organisations, the scientific community as well as local communities have become better in their efforts at responding to these pandemics and large-scale epidemics. Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan for instance, have been ahead of the curve in anticipating and responding to the outbreak. Since SARS in 2003, these countries have put together detailed epidemic response plans which include public communication, border control and community engagement (school and work policies) amongst others.

Thanks to the rigorous yet innovative and empathetic measures taken by the government of Singapore, the rate of recovery of infected patients has outpaced, if not caught up, with the rate of new infections. This is truly commendable.

In India too, the state government of Kerala, for instance, has set benchmarks of effective response, leveraging technology, and meticulous planning.

These stories of success within the Indian context are extremely important, because what worked well outside India on a small scale (population and geography) cannot be implemented here with comparable results or success. The context (socio-economic, political and cultural differences) and the scale make a huge difference in outcomes.

Pandemics & Economic Inequalities: A Catch-22

Our ability to manage the health crisis during a pandemic is a battle half-won. While the economic impact of pandemics are commonly known, what does not get due attention is the catastrophic impact that pandemics can have on the poor. Pandemics and growth inequalities are often in a catch-22 situation.

On the one hand, while economic inequalities exacerbate the spread of pandemics, the economic shocks of a pandemic on the other hand deepen these inequalities.

Let us understand how this happens.

Economic inequalities, more often than not, lead to lesser disposable incomes available to low-income households for spending on healthcare. As evidenced by research, these result in the prevalence of higher rates of chronic health conditions (diabetes, heart disease) in low-income households. These pre-existing health issues have devastating effects during pandemics such as COVID-19, as evident in the crisis in Italy. Pandemics, on the other hand, deepen inequalities because of many factors including the rising cost of healthcare, the loss of income due to illness or quarantine, or worse, loss of employment.

Consider the situation of people employed in the informal sector or the gig economy, most of whom don’t get paid if they stay at home due to an illness or quarantine. A required response to containing a pandemic directly impacts their financial status. Therefore, while people already in poverty go deeper into it, the low income households on the margins also fall into the poverty trap due to these shocks. The pandemic and economic inequality loop thus becomes a vicious cycle: poor health due to economic inequality causing greater risk during a pandemic, which in turn exposes them to greater economic and health risks.

The Way Forward

With our improved ability to mitigate, contain and recover from the health impacts of a pandemic, it is probably time for us to focus on improving our response to the economic shocks of pandemics. The benefits are doing this are already evident. In Singapore for instance, the government offers self-employed people a daily wage to help make up for the loss of income due to the quarantine. This is a small yet crucial step – not only to help improve the outcomes of government efforts to enforce quarantines but also to protect the financial well-being of the patients and their families.

While the exact approach may or may not be feasible on the scale needed in India, the intent (to mitigate economic shock) cannot be overlooked.

Here again, the government of Kerala has shown us a glimmer of hope. While its attempt to offer a economic relief package has received mixed responses and is yet to be tested, we need to acknowledge the intent. These are small yet important steps in the right direction.

It is without doubt that the human race always learns, adapts and moves forward from every major crisis.

Our resilience through wars, great recessions, global economic crises and health pandemics are testament to our ability to adapt, survive and thrive. Reflecting on this resolve gives us the courage to believe that this too shall pass, and it certainly will. What we should hope and strive for is to ensure that everyone, irrespective of their socio-economic background have an equitable chance of success during, and access to opportunity after the crisis. To enable this, as evident, we need a more sustained and holistic response to pandemics which includes both health and economic measures.

(Rohit Shenoy heads the Public Policy School at The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy based at Bangalore. 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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