View: It’s now time to save livelihoods and restart the economy

By Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Devi Shetty

Current data seems to indicate that India is entering a safe zone as far as the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned.

As of April 19, ICMR reported a Test Positivity Rate (TPR) of 4.4% (ie, one in 23 people tested were positive). Compared to India, the US had a TPR of 19.3%, Spain’s was 18.2%, and Japan’s figure was 8.8%. However, there is a caveat that TPRs are not accurate projections of the infection rates as it all depends on the testing rates. Perhaps, India’s TPR could be even lower given that our testing criteria are very strict.

Furthermore, while total confirmed cases continue to grow in India, crossing the 21,000 mark on April 22, the growth rate of active cases was at ~6%. This means, the number of active cases are doubling every 10 days instead of every three days.

Rapid response by the Indian government to the pandemic through quarantine measures, nationwide lockdown and risk based zoning, has potentially saved thousands of lives. It is now time to save livelihoods.

To ensure that the medical crisis does not snowball into a potentially devastating economic crisis, the government will have to restart the economy from May 3 – with surveillance and safeguards – and work towards measures to protect jobs and livelihoods and arrest the decline in domestic demand as well as exports.

We now need to focus on removing the social stigma of Covid-19 infection as well as remove the fear psychosis and paranoia that has hijacked our society. No country can afford lengthy lockdowns, least of all a country like India.

One reason for the low mortality rate in India has to do with the disproportionately young population of the country, where 90% of the Indian population is below the age of 60. The world over, about 80% deaths have been reported among people aged 60 and above.

India has rightly won praise from the WHO for its tough and timely efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus. A 21-day nationwide lockdown, extended by three weeks, has stemmed a surge in infections and a rush of hospital admissions resulting from Covid-19 complications.

The lockdown period has been utilised for preparedness planning in terms of building capacity in our healthcare infrastructure. Over 580 hospitals across the country have been prepared to treat Covid-19 cases, with a capacity of over 1,00,000 isolation beds and 11,500 ICU beds. Moreover, private players have created a step down model by converting hotels, guesthouses and hostels into dedicated Covid-19 nursing centres.

Additionally, the Indian manufacturing sector has stepped forward to ramp up manufacturing capacity for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), diagnostic kits, masks and ventilators.

Indian media have been influenced by Western media reports which obsess on the high mortality numbers in the US, Italy, Spain, etc. Scientific data indicate that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is less lethal than SARS and MERS which are also coronaviruses. MERS has killed 34% of patients, while SARS in 2002 had a fatality rate of 9.6%. In comparison, Covid-19’s fatality rate is 1.4%.

The role of international travel spreading the virus is noteworthy. In 2002 flights to and from China were very few. Since then, there are around 30 Chinese airlines flying with 450 million more passengers within China per year. Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, has direct flights to more than 30 international destinations including Milan and Tehran, the epicentres that initiated the spread to Europe.

India has done well to respond, prepare and manage the Covid-19 crisis so far. We now need to respond rapidly to the looming economic calamity, get into crisis management mode and prepare a plan to revive the economy to get back to normal growth at the earliest.

The construction industry absorbs the most amount of labour after agriculture. The fastest way to restart the economy would simply be to build, build, build. We are critically short of vital infrastructure like expressways, canals, power plants, ports, warehouses, affordable housing, etc. This would be the best time to float long-term sovereign infrastructure bonds to fund these projects because yield hungry foreign investors are sitting on billions of dollars of liquidity.

When people are engaged in productive roles a large population is a source of strength, not weakness. This pandemic has laid bare the importance of having a robust healthcare system. If we liberalise medical education, India can produce enough nurses, doctors and medical technicians for the whole world’s requirement. The cutting edge technologies of the 21st century will revolve around health and wellness, with a tremendous opportunity for India to play a leading role in their development.

The gaping hole in global manufacturing and supply chains presents India with an opportunity to be amongst the front runners in economic recovery. This can be of immense strategic value.

Our hospitals have gone through the humiliation of being denied vital medical equipment from multinational companies and our pharma companies were near a crisis when denied access to APIs from China. We must undertake necessary labour reforms to enable Indian and multinational companies to invest in completely vertically integrated large-scale manufacturing clusters in every single sector. Never before has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s exhortation to ‘Make in India’ been more relevant than today.

(The writer is chairperson and MD of Biocon Ltd. Devi Shetty is a cardiac surgeon and chairperson and founder, Narayana Health)

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