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Did the government really err in imposing the lockdown without advance notice?

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In 1968, the ecologist Garrett Hardin published a short article on the Science titled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin described the tragedy of the commons as a situation in which individual actors acting in their own self-interest inevitably lead to a universally undesirable outcome and he used the example of grazing land to highlight this issue. In a patch of common grazing land, every herder has an incentive to add to his herd, since he reaps the entire benefit accrued from it, while the extra stress on the common resources is borne by every herder. Effectively, the gains are privatized and the losses are socialized. Over time, the land will become barren due to overgrazing and everybody loses out. Though the focus of Hardin’s article was on overpopulation, the same analysis can be applied to the situation today where the government is being relentlessly criticized for supposedly taking inadequate measures with respect to the lockdown.

The main thrust of the critique against the government is that they failed to adequately provide support to migrant workers. Critics point to two decisions made by the government in order to substantiate their claim: first, the government’s decision to impose the lockdown with virtually no notice, thereby causing hardship to migrant workers who were unable to make their way home; and second, the rescuing of citizens stranded abroad at extraordinary cost, whilst failing to extend similar measures towards migrants. These two decisions, they argue, show that the government’s priorities are completely misplaced and that they do not care for the poor. In this article, I shall try to counter these two points and argue why the government necessarily had to impose the lockdwon the way it did.

What these critics do not take into account is that the lockdown necessarily had to be immediate for it to be effective in any manner. Consider a situation in which the lockdown was announced two days in advance. Each person, acting in their own self-interest, would proceed to travel back to their homes, where they could be safe with their families. There would have been an immense outflow of migrants from bigger cities and towns, to rural villages. This, however, would have defeated the very purpose of the lockdown. Though each person individually might not have caused any harm, the large-scale movement would effectively have led to the large-scale transmission of the virus from the cities to the villages. Further, by using crowded public transport systems, they would have increased transmission amongst themselves. I do not mean to suggest that the migrants do not have the right to be with their families, or that they should be treated any worse than those more privileged. During these terrible times, they do deserve to be safe at home with their families. Their large population, unfortunately, necessitated such a move in order to effectively prevent the virus from spreading.

The entire purpose of the lockdown was to ensure that there would be effective containment of transmission. Had the government allowed every person to return home, then the battle would have been even more difficult, and the virus would have spread to a far greater number of people. Most states do not have a robust enough healthcare system in place. The influx of migrants returning home, many of them undoubtedly infected, and spreading the virus would have inevitably led to the collapse of these weak systems. Hardin suggested that coercive action was the only way to prevent the tragedy of commons. The only way for government to ensure that its systems could handle the pandemic, unfortunately, was to impose a complete lockdown immediately. Some critics point to countries such as Singapore which provided its citizens with advance notice before imposing a lockdown. What they fail to consider, however, is that Singapore has a total population of barely sixty lakh people; Delhi itself, on the other hand, has a roughly two crore population. The tragedy of commons, unfortunately, only rears its head when the there is substantial pressure on the system. A few people travelling within the country might not cause harm, but when forty five crore people decide to return to their homes, you can be sure that systems will fail.

This naturally leads to the second issue. Ideally, the government should have screened each and every migrant and provided safe transportation to those who were healthy. The government did not hesitate to provide transport to foreigners stuck abroad or middle-class students stuck in Kota, the argument goes, and should have extended the same facilities to migrants. The flaw in this reasoning lies in the number of people in each situation. There were fewer than five hundred students stuck in Kota, and barely two hundred were initially rescued from abroad. The current repatriation schemes, which are larger in scope, require expats to pay their own way, with only limited government assistance. Screening each of them for the virus would have been a relatively straight-forward task simply because they were so few in number. Further, immediate repatriation of stranded tourists might have been warranted since the foreign governments would not have extended any support to them at all. Directly comparing the massive costs incurred is also of no use. Transporting the large number of migrants, in addition to requiring huge financial resources, also needs massive amounts of manpower and infrastructure to effectively screen, quarantine, and transport them. Screening them would have required a huge diversion of manpower which might have been better utilized at hospitals and other areas, not to mention the higher risk they would have faced because of the massive number of people they would have had to screen.

Even we decided to screen and transport every person, the bigger risk is unfortunately disease transmission. The tests in use for detecting the coronavirus have sensitivities ranging from 65% to 90%. This means that at best, a test may only positively identify 90% of those who actually have the virus, and 10% of those who actually have the virus, will test negative for it. For smaller populations, the risk of a false negative may not be significant, however, when you have around forty-five crore migrants around the country, these risks become magnified. Given that our tests might only have sensitivities around 70-80%, the risk of uncontrolled transmission is too high. The stranded migrants, unfortunately, can only be allowed to return to their homes if it is done in a slow and controlled process. Rapid testing and transport infrastructure will have to be put in place before it can happen.

Migrants flouting the government norms and attempting to return home should certainly be treated more humanely and the instances of police brutality are rightly condemned; however, it would not be in the nation’s best interests to facilitate a rapid large-scale reverse migration at this time. It is certainly true that the cramped living conditions of most migrants might further exacerbate the transmission, however, the solution to that problem is not facilitating travel for all of them. Perhaps the government could have arranged transport facilities for a small number of them to reduce the population density in identified living areas. The governments’ current policy to repatriate migrants, formulated in direct response to criticism from all sides, will certainly worsen the efforts to contain the pandemic.

At the time of writing, India has around 96,169 confirmed cases. Had the lockdown not been sudden and absolute, this count would have been far higher, given the logarithmic nature of disease transmission. It is certainly unfortunate that the most underprivileged have to disproportionately bear the adverse effects of the pandemic and it is deeply regrettable that they have been stranded in foreign cities without sufficient access to resources. It is even sadder that they have to be away from the comfort of their families during these trying times.  To put blame on the government on this count, however, would be highly misleading.

The government was caught between the Scylla of increasing transmission and the Charybdis of causing hardship to migrant workers. It is not pressure on the fisc that the government fears, but the possibility of a nationwide pandemic. In these circumstances, it is quite difficult to see how the government could have handled this specific situation significantly better. Instituting administrative and logistical infrastructure to handle the pandemic will certainly take some time, and the failures in distributing food and other resources can certainly be attributed to a lack of such capacity. With time, the government will certainly hone these mechanisms to ensure that every person is adequately supplied. It is easy to criticize the government for not taking measures that seem, in retrospect, obvious; but in these times, it is perhaps best that we engage constructively with the government rather than attacking them at every turn.

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