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OpinionsFor India, lives and livelihood are same

For India, lives and livelihood are same


Gaurav Vallabh

In a nation where incomes and survival are related to a large extent, keeping the wheels of economic activities moving is necessary

With well over 14 months into the Covid-19 health and economic crisis, the first instinct of nations has been on saving as many lives as they can. One of the crisis management mechanisms resorted to by almost all nations has been locking down movements and activities. The rationale behind lockdownshas been to break the chain of infections.

While there are a lot of ifs and buts involved in evaluating whether lockdowns are the best way to handle a crisis like Covid-19, what is certain is that it didnot just affect lives, it affected livelihoods too. What the lockdown meant was that the street hawker you used to buy tea from outside your office was now locked inside his house, registering zero sales. The autorickshaws that used to take you to your nearest metro station didn't have anyone to cater to. The tailor who operated out of a shack, outside your apartment complex, was now out of work. In a developing and resource constrained nation like ours, are life and livelihood truly unrelated?

While the first wave of Covid-19 came as a sudden shock to the economic system, there is a line of thought about how we could have cushioned the impact of the second wave. We had examples of nations that have experienced the second wave well before we did and even our expert committee on health had warned the government of a second wave. While our entire nation went in for a lockdown for at least 68 daysbetween March and May 2020;in the second wave, it was left on states to tackle the rise in infections.

Maharashtra has been under a strict lockdown since April 14 and Delhi since April 19.Most of the other states have gone in for a similar lockdown starting April.While in the first wave, we didn't have any protection against this deadly virus, we did have three important tools or cues before the second Covid-19 wave: Vaccines, a heads-up and the benefit of experience.

In , with close to 90 per cent of the entire workforce employed in the informal sector, lockdowns are a killer. While salaried people have savings to fall back on in case of a job loss or income cuts, the informal workers feed on daily earnings. The more prolonged the period of lockdowns are, the higher the population slides below the poverty line.

According to PEW , India's middle class shrunk by 3.2 croreand 7.5 crore people were pushed below poverty line in 2020. Much of this will be attributed to the lockdowns and closed economic activities. Even if we look at the second wave alone, close to 73.5 lakh jobs were lost in April, 2021 and 1.5 Crore jobs were lost in May, 2021. Even if the economy recovers, it is going to be slow. On top of that, not all jobs lost will come back.The GDP per capita in 2020-21 has fallen to Rs 99,694 and as per CMIE, 97 per cent of the people have seen either an income reduction or no change at all.

The main weapon that we could have wielded aggressively to protect both lives and livelihood was vaccination.Among the nations worst hit by Covid-19, almost all started their vaccination drives a month before we did. We have vaccinated close to 15.6 lakh people per day on an average ever since our vaccination drive started. Even if we look at the average of the last seven days, we have only managed to administer close to 25 lakh doses per day. If we look at other affected nations in proportion to their population, we will be the only nation to not be able to vaccinate our adult population completely by 2021.

The USA has administered close to 30 crore doses and 89 doses per 100 people. That has ensured that restaurants are opening up again, concerts are coming back, vaccinated people are allowed to step out and is coming back to usual. As a result of the momentum in their vaccination drive, the jobless claims in the US have also come down from close to 70 lakh in April, 2020 to 4.4 lakhin May, 2021.Economists expect the consumer spending to go up by 2.7 per cent for 2021. So, vaccination does allow the liberty for keeping the economy open and ensuring a quicker recovery.

On the other hand, close to five months into our vaccination drive, we are still being forced to resort to lockdowns to curb the spurt in infections.14 months into the crisis, if lockdowns are the only option to tackle this health crisis, it will no longer remain a health crisis. If Maruti Suzuki manufactures 71 per cent less cars in May, 2021 as compared to April, 2021, it has a trickle-down effect. The suppliers that supply parts and raw materials and employ hundreds of contract workers would record lower manhours and in turn lower incomes for the workers. As far as the first wave was concerned, it was a sudden stop.

The impact of the second wave is on the hands of the government.The Indian airline industry is set to lose $8 Billion by 2020. Without complete vaccination, airports will continue to witness lower traffic. Its impact is visible on the ground. By September 2020, there was a 33 per cent reduction in ground handling staff and a 28 per cent reduction in airport staff. These jobs would continue to be gone from the system until normalcy returns. Most of these would be middle to low-income employees who will not find employment elsewhere. Normalcy can only return when cases are under control, there are no lockdowns which is possible only when large population has the safety net of vaccinations.

Lockdowns do help bring the curve of infections down, but when the low-income groups are forced to stay at home, their incomes are shunted to zero. The nutrition quotient in their food goes down, their children are forced to drop out of school and their misery deepens. Their lives are in any ways hampered. With expectations of a third wave sometime later this year, it is on the government to either send our middle class and lower income groups unvaccinated and enforce lockdowns again to save lives and kill livelihoods or vaccinate the entire population before that and save both lives and livelihoods. If we do not take heed, middle class will continue to lose jobs, poverty will deepen its roots and lives would in any case be affected, when livelihoods are affected. In a nation, where incomes are related to survival for a large extent, keeping the wheels of economic activities moving is necessary.The only recovery we will be able to register will be a K-Shaped recovery, where the divide based on economic prosperity will continue to get wider with rich getting richer and the poor falling off the radar completely.

The author is Spokesperson, Congress party. The views expressed are personal.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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