Originally Published 2020-03-25 10:30:07 Published on Mar 25, 2020
Eight steps to make the lockdown work

India is at the cusp of an exponential pandemic crisis. But like any crisis, bold action can help reduce the impact. Here are seven of them.

Firstly, recognize and accept realities at the earliest possible stage. Risk experts have a different take on the adage — hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It is “hope is not a strategy, and the reality is always worse than scenarios”. If we are alarmist, then at the most, we may waste some resources, but if not, preparation would save countless lives. Now is not the time to be hiding bad news from stakeholders. Instead, it is the time to advocate worst-case scenarios unblemished, without fear or favour.

Second, scenarios have to be planned in ‘Horizons’. For instance, Horizon One would be the exponential increase of patients, the unprecedented strain on medical infrastructure and the economic impact of the lockdown. Horizon Two, is picking up the pieces and limping back to normalcy accepting that a certain percentage of our population, especially the elderly, including critical leadership in political, administrative and corporates may not be available. These horizon planning teams have to be separate so that each can focus on their objective. Loading all the planning and execution on the same officials of administration and police who are already in firefighting mode will overwhelm the system.

Thirdly, and most importantly, work out the value chain of essential services in microscopic detail. Just keeping the food and medicine shops open, is meaningless if the people supplying those are locked up. Communication, Power, fuel and gas are four critical lifelines that have to be kept going at all costs. The first two are vital for the government to govern and the last two to deliver relief where needed. Which means that the lockdown will have to ease far more, accepting the accompanying risks. Else, unintended consequences will manifest shortly. These will be, failures of telecommunication networks including the internet (engineers have to repair the systems, technicians have to fuel the generators. Gas cylinders and kerosene have to be supplied for cooking. And fuel is required for all of this). If the communication channels break, everything else including food supply will unravel rapidly.

Ironically, lockdown increases loads because data streaming explodes in fragmented networks. Here is why. When office goers and students are in office/school, networks transport data up to the office complex from where the internal networks distribute that link. Now that data is being streamed directly to homes, through far more fragmented systems, swamping the infrastructure which is not designed for such loads, and with no IT team to maintain them.

These four critical commodities have very long value chains, starting from the refineries, powerplants and import hubs, right up to the last mile delivery and everything in between. For instance, consider the implication if your router, fridge or cooking stove gets broken. Where is the supply chain to replenish it? Also factor in the human angle. If a technician, policeman, administrator or politician or someone in his family falls sick, that resource is unavailable. Similarly, if restaurants and hostels shut down, then how do last-mile personnel sustain. We must also factor that frontline personnel in medical fraternity, police and administration will have disproportionate attrition soon.

Fourthly, leverage national capacity. While some conglomerates have stepped forward, their resources need to be coordinated and channelized for maximum impact. If there was ever an occasion for a national emergency, it is this. Tasking for other quasi-government and social organizations such as NCC, Rotary, Entrepreneurs forums, CII, FICCI, RWAs etc. must be designed and coordinated intelligently. These could range from developing awareness videos in vernacular, creating and manning of ham radios for when the cellular networks start faltering or private doctors taking on the responsibility of conducting testing within residential complexes and surrounding slums. This will require managerial bandwidth and domain knowledge way beyond current government capacity, and hence services of key retired military personnel, civil servants, administrators must be solicited to augment it. There is precedence for this in the form of an Emergency commission of army officers during the 1962 war and precisely why all retiring military personnel are kept on a two-year reserve list. That concept has to be expanded and implemented.

Fifth, assign the best people for the job crossing ideology and party lines. Abraham Lincoln built a team with three of his rivals; Churchill had two adversaries in his war cabinet. Closer home, PM Narasimha Rao sent the leader of the opposition to advocate India’s case in the UN, simply because the AB Vajpayee was the best Indian to do the job. Now is the time to focus on the ability of the individual, not the alignment to the ideology.

Sixth, set up a communication strategy which tells the truth in simple terms. Nature abhors a vacuum, and fake news will fill the void in the absence of honest official communication, causing incalculable damage. The government must dominate that space by earning credibility, and the only way to do that is, to tell the truth, frequently.

Seven, kindle and leverage genuine national spirit amongst all Indians. It is one thing to clap for five minutes and another to sustain blackouts, communication shutdowns, rationing of fuel, sharing of meagre resources and empathizing with an increasing number of sick, instead of ostracising them. The root of polarisation is more contenders fighting for fewer resources, leading to ‘us versus them’ mentality. Once that begins, energy is expended on internecine conflict rather than fighting the common enemy. Mete out exemplary punishment to those who ignite rabidity like the assaulters of citizens from the northeast or families of flight crews.

Lastly, realize that every crisis is an opportunity. At long last, a divided and insular citizenry whose philosophy had become “If you are not with us — then by definition you are against us” has a common enemy that is far more lethal than parochialism. The startling change is apparent in the tenor of social media messaging — which until a few weeks ago was reeking with narrowminded venom and filthy abuses. We face an existential crisis for every Indian, regardless of their wealth, religion or political affiliation. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin — during this crisis, either we all hang together, or most definitely we will hang one by one.

This commentary originally appeared in Medium.

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