Hyderabad: It has been three weeks since the WHO declared Covid2019 a pandemic. It is not the world’s first coronavirus. We have had SARS, MERS, H1N1, swine flu and some more with a much higher fatality rate. But this is unique in its sweeping virulence. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says the annual percentage of the U.S. population infected with the flu is about 8%, which translates to 26 million people a year. Of these, the CDC estimates that up to 60000 persons die. It stands to reason that many more in India get afflicted by flues and influenzas each year, possibly with larger fatalities.
Given this knowledge and some very recent hindsight, it is time to sit back and objectively reconsider the draconian policy measures unleashed in India. The four hours to midnight order for a nationwide “curfew” to enforce social distancing has caught our public and public administration woefully unprepared. The consequences of COVID 19 to the Indian economy and consequent loss of lives and longevity, seems very likely to exceed the loss due to any mass spread of the virus.
Epidemiological studies put out by several well regarded institutions such as MIT and the Global Virus Network (GVN) seem to suggest that this particular coronavirus is endemic in populated areas falling in temperature band of 3-17C with a humidity between 51 -79%. These initial findings suggesting a correlation between latitude and incidence have the powerful endorsement of Dr. Robert Gallo, the famed virologist, and GVN head.
Mind you it has been just a few months COVID 19 jumped species by finding a home in human beings. COVID 19’s natural reservoir, seems to be bats, like the earlier coronaviruses --SARS and MERS. But the fact remains the spread of COVID2019 has been faster in areas with colder climes.
The essential facts about COVID2019 are that while it is virulent, its fatality is around 1% and this is principally concentrated among the elderly and already ailing. Its symptoms are mostly akin to common seasonal flues often attributed to change of season, etc. COVID 2019 can only be confirmed by testing and the cheapest test costs about Rs.5000 each. We cannot afford to test enough which simply means we won’t ever know how many are truly afflicted by COVID2019.
The average life expectancy of Indians is 68.7 years. The above 65 years cohort accounts for only about 6% of India, which suggests that the incidence of fatality here will be lower. Bubonic plague has a mortality of over 80%, while even diphtheria has a mortality rate of 32%. COVID2019 is not a killer virus. In developed countries like the USA, Italy and elsewhere with substantially higher life expectancy, 70 plus years cohorts are much bigger. The mortality rate has been the highest in Italy with about 9%. Almost 86% of the Italians who died were over 70 years. Italy has the second oldest population in the world after Japan, with over 23% above the age of 65 years. Experts believe this was the determining factor in its high fatality rate.
The goal of social distancing is a hugely unfulfilled aspiration. The poor in India live cheek by jowl with densities often exceeding 60000 per sq.miles. India has over 410 million workers in the unorganized sector, the vast majority of whom are daily wagers making a little more than the prescribed official wages and often much below that. This working-age cohort is mostly made up of younger Indians. The youthful age group (14-35 years) accounts for about 34% of India’s population. This cohort is as much as 35-65 years. Thus, even if the pandemic is real for India, the fatality rate will be very low. The vast majority of Indians who might get infected by COVID2019 virus won’t even know it.
Now assume that the COVID2019 pandemic will overwhelm India, and consider India’s abysmal healthcare scene. We have 6 physicians; 9 hospital beds and 13 nurses per 10,000 people. Nationwide, we have less than 40000 ventilators and only 70000 intensive care beds (ICU). It calls for a policy that will help stagger the load and allow immunity to build up without overwhelming the critical care system.
Harvard’s Yonatan Grad, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and colleagues researched how to prevent overwhelming the U.S. healthcare system during the pandemic. This indicates the only possible method for dealing with the epidemic may be the multiple “intermittent” social-distancing periods that ease up when cases fall to a certain level and then are reimposed when they rise past a key threshold. As time passes and more of the population gains immunity, they said, the restrictive episodes could be shorter, with longer intervals between them. The nationwide simultaneous social distancing imposition was not only but also ill-conceived.
The IMF has now announced a global recession due to disrupted supply chains and contraction of consumption. In India, consumption (C) accounts for 63% of GDP. Given GDP is = C + I + G + (X – M) or GDP = private consumption (C) + gross investment (I)+ government investment + government spending (G) + (exports – imports), the impact of the collapse of private consumption of the economy can be easily understood.
Many respected analysts agreed that it will be no less than 20-30% in Q1. The government pledged to step up its spending by Rs.1.7 lakh crores. We won’t go into how this was arrived at now, but just consider how inadequate it is compared to the hit taken by consumption? The government needs to do more. It needs to pull out all stops to do this.
Where is the money? Even if it sequestered 20% of the cash reserves with our 100 corporations, it will be substantial. The top 10 corporations alone have a hoard of over Rs.10 lakh crores. (Reliance has cash reserves of Rs.398,000 crores. TCS has almost Rs.100,000 Crs, ITC has Rs.60,000 Crs.) Our government wage and pensions bill accounts for 11.4% of GDP. Holding back only 10% of this or just the annual LTC will fetch the state and central governments over Rs.2 lakh crores. It only calls for will and vision to accumulate the cash to begin the reconstruction of a devastated economy. The pain cannot and must not be borne by the poorest alone. Modi has formidable communication skills and he must use it now.