Death by infection or demise by lack of livelihood: these are the two ugly choices before the world of policymakers today. Allow business as usual and infection by Covid-19 spreads. Stop all transport and logistics and slowly food, medicines and essentials begin to vanish. Stretch both from the citizen’s point of view and there is only one idea that will bind them together – panic. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen health and lives in his 24 March 2020 29-minute speech, the impact and implication of economic hardship due to the lockdown can’t be undermined.
Across centuries as well as geographies, crises and catastrophes have shown us that the one key driver of return to normal is the ability of societies and nations to deliver distribution, keep the supply chains going. In this ongoing Covid-19 crisis, we need to take one more step. In what could possibly be a first and set the playbook for future disasters, governments across the world need to use public as well as private sector supply chains, support jobs and livelihoods while delivering essential goods and services. In effect turn them into weapons of mass reconstruction.
This reconstruction will be best driven by the government as well as companies, in the private sector as well as in the public sector. The movement of goods from the manufacturer to the consumer involves a fleet of businesses, large and small, that cart food, toys, automobiles, groceries and suchlike to distributors, who across several layers (depending on the need of the product) reach these products to retailers, who finally sell to consumers. The last leg of this chain often comprises vendors of ice-cream and SIM cards, sellers of cigarettes and stationary, dispensers of medicines and groceries. All these hard and soft assets should be used to fight this crisis. Finally, while dealing with this crisis, the government needs to plan for a longer timeframe than 21 days, and then hope for an early end. Ten ideas follow.
- Deliver public healthcare. Continue with whatever the Union and State governments are already doing on the healthcare front such that those afflicted by the virus are taken care of, either in quarantine or in hospitals. And ensure that essentials such as food, medicines and other daily requirements are available throughout the country. The resounding echo from doctors, nurses and paramedical caregivers is that they are ready. Complaints from consumers and retailers tell us that essentials are not reaching due to implementation frictions.
- Involve the private sector. In terms of reaching goods to the people, the supply chain infrastructure of India compares with the best globally. A Hindustan Unilever shampoo satchel or a Britannia biscuit packet is available in an 80-strong village ensconced in distant hilly terrains of Himachal Pradesh. A Jio SIM or an ITC cigarette is available in the remotest corner of a desert in India. Given the gravity of the situation, the government should use this distribution network to deliver food and groceries to citizens and consumers.
- Co-opt redundant labour, vendors into the logistics chain… With hundreds of thousands of stranded and homeless daily wagers having no means to travel back to their villages, the government could turn them into last-mile transporters. This way, the economic hardship they may be facing can be overcome by an extra-Budget provisions (as well as corporate infusions, as explored below), starting from the Centre and trickling down to the States. Although this is not the time to play financial politics, the cost should be borne by both governments; there is no space for fiscal bickering. All the while, keep the protection of livelihoods in mind. A quick skilling kit, specific to the commodity being transported, from a fast moving consumer good to life saving over-the-counter medicines, should be embedded into this initiative. This way, the unskilled labourer will emerge with new expertise that will be portable and scalable.
- …and give them all protections. While such a structure keeps the economic chain moving, it cannot be done at the cost of the citizen’s life. Every hand that engages with this last-mile delivery should be accompanied with adequate protections and rigorous procedures, including social distancing (digital payments to seller with the hand leaving the package outside the door, for instance). A healthcare-certified protocol of steps, not very different in spirit from a testing lab or a surgery team, should be followed at every point by every economic agent in the chain.
- Open temporary food stations. Again, these need to designed carefully, with all the preventive mechanisms of social distancing and hygiene in place. Food security in the time of great stress will help prevent panic. Use the midday meal infrastructure, or lessons from it, to expand and scale up this initiative. Citizen-administration models are emerging; these need to be strictly followed.
- Seek out and create temporary shelter stations… Here, an out of the box legislative solution through the Ordinance route would help. An experiment could be conducted to include home-owners and the real estate sector. Given the thousands of homes lying empty for lack of trust, absence of a return and the unsurmountable legal mountains a home owner needs to encounter in a court, the government could enact a law that takes these empty houses on rent for three to 12 months, depending on the intensity of the virus. This way, an asset that is going nowhere gets used by small groups of people, say two in a room, after testing. Offer asset security to the home-owner and life-security to those temporarily residing in them. The rent can be a fraction of the market rate.
- …and empower them. Going forward, if residency above is taken as successful, each building or a set of buildings could be allotted a team comprising a trained healthcare worker and a security professional to ensure sanctity of the seclusion objective. All these, could be on contractual terms. In case the virus spreads out beyond what it is today, clusters could be converted into full-time quarantine wards.
- Work with the private sector to expand healthcare facilities. Reliance Industries Ltd has set up a 100-bed centre at Seven Hills Hospital completely dedicated to patients of Covid-19 in partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Mahindra Holidays has offered its resorts as temporary care facilities. Mahindra Group Chairman Anand Mahindra said the group’s projects team “stands ready to assist the Govt/Army in erecting temporary care facilities”. These assets, created and offered in record time should be utilised efficiently. Perhaps a ground-zero team of government officials and private managers should work together to administer these facilties.
- Use money wisely. Companies are opening their purses, money is flowing and more will continue to flow towards fighting this virus. Vedanta chairman Anil Agarwal has set up a Rs 100 crore fund to protect livelihood of vulnerable communities impacted by Covid-19. Axis Bank has set aside Rs 100 crore to help curb the spread of coronavirus. Anand Mahindra has offered his Rs 8 crore salary to fund small businesses and self-employed in the company’s value chain. Over the next few weeks, we will see more companies, as well as their employees, open their purses to fight this cause. The government should set up a system of accountability or create processes and information flows that enable this money to be utilised efficiently. Use financial management expertise in corporate sector to set up and track these processes.
- Embed entrepreneurs and managers in crisis management. The corporate sector is not just about money or physical infrastructure. It is equally about infusing efficiency in projects, operations, crises management, innovation and entrepreneurship – that’s how they are trained, that’s what they do, that’s who they are. While hard money will flow easily, this expertise must not be held back by turf or administrative frictions. Patriotism doesn’t have a net worth and is not restricted to one sector (the government) alone. A start can be made by setting up a task force of technology entrepreneurs and big businesses that can support government initiatives with knowledge and insights.
While most wealthy nations can focus on life, in a poor country like India, it is crucial to balance lives and livelihoods. For the latter, the government needs all the trained hands it can get. The rest, as Modi stated, can contribute to this great cause by respecting the Lakshman Rekha and staying home.
The article was published on Observer Research Foundation.
Article source: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/10-ideas-to-fight-covid-19-63698/
Writer: Gautam Chikermane, Vice President, ORF