Easing the Lockdown

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FROM May 4 onwards, India has started third phase of lockdown for another two weeks. According to latest figures, the total number of coronavirus cases have passed 40,000 with as many as 1,306 fatalities. So, the flattening of curve that was expected to come about in the forty days of lockdown hasn’t happened prompting the government to extend the cessation of activity for another two weeks.

The new lockdown order, however, states that only a limited number of activities will remain prohibited across the country, irrespective of the zones, including travel by air, rail, metro and inter-state movement by road; running of schools, colleges, and other educational and training and coaching institutions. In addition the government has barred social, political, cultural, religious and other kinds of gatherings.

The movement of individuals in all zones for all non-essential activities has been strictly prohibited between 7 pm and 7 am. Local authorities, the order states, shall issue orders imposing Section 144 and ensure strict compliance.

As is apparent, unlike phase 1 and phase 2 lockdowns, the government has taken steps towards a graded reopening of the economy. Industrial activities have been allowed under strict instructions to observe of social distancing. Similarly, all agricultural activities – sowing, harvesting, procurement and marketing operations in the agricultural supply chain are permitted.

These are important relaxations as it’s not possible for the government to completely shut down the economy. At stake are crores of jobs. The micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) which across an estimated 5 crore units employ around 11 crore people have been hardest hit. The MSMEs also constitute a large part of the manufacturing in the country as also the exports. This makes up a big chunk of the Gross Domestic Product. So, the government has to not only let this sector gradually re-open but also provide it a significant stimulus support.

Also, with the three successive extensions of the lockdown, the government’s options to go for a further extension are limited. However, the upcoming week will be crucial in terms of the trajectory of pandemic in the country in the country. A diminishing number of cases will make it easier to plan an exit strategy. And in any case, the government can’t ignore the growing urgency to reopen the economy. And to start with the best strategy would be to considerably ease the lockdown from the least affected areas of the country, as the effort seems to have been now. At the same time, government can’t afford to further delay the stimulus package that should have come by now.

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