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Vol. XXX No. 9, September 1-15, 2020

Speculating on life after Corona

by A Special Correspondent

For some time to come, Corona will not yield place to any other subject in social conversations and for publication in print and electronic media. Media people have a tough job, every day, and every hour, finding subjects that pass the tests of relevance and audience interest. The Chinese intrusion and Bollywood mysteries provide some relief from this singular obsession but may not last long. We indulge in a wishful speculation, with no pretensions to special expertise, on the likely longer-term impact of Corona.

It looks as if Corona has come to stay with us for as long as we can see. People and governments are tired of large-scale lockdowns. Perhaps, at an initial heavy cost of lives, this might force people to experiment with alternative lifestyles and work models that are not socially suffocating, nor economically constrictive.

Awareness that poor hygiene could be life-threatening has been imprinted on our minds. A much-needed attitudinal transformation could be a positive outcome of Corona. This change, combined with a new energy for collective action might raise the effectiveness of municipal services like solid waste collection and disposal, elimination of single use plastics, composting of organic waste and rain water harvesting. Encouraged by public response, the State Government should go for substantial investment in improving the hygienic environment.

The inward-looking lifestyle imposed by the prolonged lock-down will help discover joys of family togetherness, strengthen inter-generational bonds, and make way for a lifestyle of contentment, freed from the aid of external props.
During the crisis, neighbourhoods learnt to act in concert, share responsibilities, make do with what was available, help the old and the infirm, extend financial support to the poor, feed the hungry by running community kitchens, take care of street dogs starved of food and so on. Community action is a powerful social energy that will help overcome future crises, small and large. By demanding physical distancing, Corona has promoted social cohesion.

Dharavi-like slums, huddles of large families within 100-150 square-foot space, are everywhere in the country. Apart from the need to save them against another Corona, it is no matter of pride that such inhuman conditions have been allowed to exist along-side mansions, grand malls and seven-star hotels showing up another world of pomp and luxury. Defining living space in terms of minimum standard of physical distancing may become a legally enforceable obligation for residential and working space. This may be accompanied by a concomitant obligation, cast on the State, to provide bridging assistance to low income groups so that they too are housed in dignity. Town planners, in the new era, will integrate physical distancing principles into the design of urban settlements. As we write, the World Bank is offering financial assistance to Chennai to redesign footpaths and public spaces to adapt the city to physical distancing.

The desirability or otherwise of inter-state migration has become a burning issue. Should such migration be stopped or allowed? Home States want to prevent their workers from going to distant parts of the country. They try to create employment within the State. It cannot be done overnight. Generating jobs through economic growth is slower but sustainable in yielding results.
Artificial invention of jobs is instant but, often, merely disguises unemployment. Mobility of labour is necessary to physically link jobs created with jobs taken. The cultural fusion that mobility brings about is icing on the cake. Host states would find it beneficial to look after migrant workers. Agriculturally rich states would prepare for labour shortages and incentivise progressive mechanisation.

Lockdown has become a debatable issue. Should there have been a lock down at all? If it was useful, should it have been better timed to avoid hardships? Should it have been more selective? How gradually should it have been drawn down? What are the benefits of lockdown in terms of lives saved versus economic contraction? These are likely to be discussed, researched, and evaluated to provide guidelines for better-informed decision making in the future, should the need arise again, God forbid. For the first time, we are confronted with the macabre option of purchasing economic growth with human lives. If we must pay a price again in the future, the price must be made affordable and human.

In a pandemic, hospital beds, medicines, vaccines, ventilators and medical and para medical services come under heavy pressure providing scope for profiteering and other mal practices. Even in ordinary times, diagnostics, and cures, made available by technology, are not necessarily within the reach of the poor. The trade-off for the poor is between suffering and life steeped in debt. Corona might lead us back towards the welfare state model resembling the plan of British economist of the forties, William Beveridge, that was based on universalism. Everyone “received coverage for a set of social risks, as a right, based on contributions paid by everyone”. To meet its responsibilities, government would want to raise more money from taxes, economise on expenditure and transfer functions/services to private sector and NGOs that can do the same more efficiently and less expensively. A thorough overhaul of current priorities and identification of new sources of tax revenue may be commissioned. Agriculture that contributes 50 per cent of GDP not only goes scot-free of taxes but enjoys subsidies in several forms, colours, and shapes. Being risk-prone by nature, agriculture does need support, but how much of it is good for its own inherent sustainability is moot. This would come up for critical scrutiny, hopefully free of electoral considerations.

Work From Home gives us a new acronym. The lockdown-imposed experiment with WFH has found that it could, with further refinements, be made the new normal. Critical staff members log into the office network, take decisions, give directions, consult each other, and monitor the output of others. Businesses and other organisations could do with perhaps a fourth or third of office space. Office space rentals will fall. Traffic on the road will diminish, lessening congestion and pollution. There would be saving in office costs, rental, petrol and electricity. Thanks to the time saved on commuting to work, more of it would be available with the family. Because of lesser frequency of going to the work place, families may stay farther from the business centre. Urban congestion will reduce. Away from town, some families might live at lower cost in healthier environments and have more spendable income; others, spending the same money could afford living better, say, in farm-attached houses. They might, in due course, take to farming, availing the free time and physical presence. Professionally managed household farms raising orchards, vegetable gardens, orchid gardens, poultries, and dairy farms may emerge as a new phenomenon in the horticultural sector. This might lead to a benevolent reversal of urban migration from rural areas.

The virus took heavy toll of countries without distinction of power, armed or economic might, race, religion or colour. It spread because it was an interconnected world. There is more mobility of skills and expertise across nations today than a few decades ago. International migrants keep in touch with their roots thanks to a shrinking world and low flight fares in real terms. Countries realise that they cannot withdraw into remote social islands without shrinking economically. International trade and mobility of people across continents cannot be reversed without serious contraction of world GDP. Affluent countries might find that their security and happiness is integrally connected with making the poor parts of the world hygienic, healthy, and happy – without extracting a price for it. Altruism might become the best policy, though not as a moral imperative.

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