21 Day Lockdown (COVID-19) - Are We Headed in Right Direction cover

21 Day Lockdown (COVID-19) – Are We Headed in Right Direction?

21 Day Lockdown (COVID-19): Due to the outbreak of coronavirus, last week, the world witnessed the largest democratic lockdown of 21 days as announced by PM Narendra Modi on March 24th, 2020. As we enjoy the privileges at our homes for social distancing and take measures to avoid Coronavirus, a greater portion of Indian population struggles to take measures to ensure their survival. Today we take a look at the cost of such a lockdown and the possible future we are looking at.

There have been many views regarding the lockdown including the one put forward by Dr. Deepak Natrajan. He took estimates based on comparison with the cases in China and the respective death rate and after periodically adjusting for one year. Later, he arrived at the conclusion that the maximum of 25000-30000 estimated deaths in India due to COVID-19. This was done to bring up the comparison of the cost of the Lockdown.

Whether this 21-day lockdown would result in smashing the economy where a hundred thousand may lose their jobs is still a point of discussion. However, most economists are estimating this pandemic resulting in many more being affected by starvation in a country already facing poverty and malnutrition.

Dr. Deepak Natrajan went on to explain how the estimated deaths due to COVID-19 are a blip in comparison to the deaths caused in a year. The deaths in India currently stands at ten lacs per year. This also sheds a light on the dilemma faced by the government over imposition a lockdown. However, it didn’t mean that he encouraged the government to do nothing but instead opt for a different route which involved aggressive testing.

Immediate effects due to the 21-day lockdown

– Hoarding

This was the first problem noticed after the lockdown was announced as people immediately resorted to the hoarding of commodities. It was done to cover the next 21 days as it was unclear from the PM address over availability of essentials and the lockdown was mistaken as a curfew.

As always, hoarding causes problems of availability. The reduced commodity results in businesses trying to benefit from the added demand by hiking up the prices which further alleviates the problem. This further reduces the purchasing power of large sections of the economy for commodity at higher prices.

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– Exodus of Daily Wage Workers

The 21-day lockdown eliminated all job opportunities available to the daily wage workers and other workers in the unorganized sector. Their situation got worse with no savings to fall back on and added hostility from the landlords who viewed them as a COVID-19 threat. This inability to pay rent also lead to the exodus where workers started their journey home hundreds of kilometers away on foot.

( Migrant Workers trying to find a way out in Delhi)

Although they were further portrayed by the media as an addition to the existing problem, this was the only way out for these bread earners to escape the problems caused by the 21-day lockdown. They started this march to avail government relief in the form of deposits in Jan Dhan saving accounts and foodgrains available to their families in their hometowns. Moreover, any attention given by the state government arrived only after the exodus had already begun.

Announced Relief Packages

A relief package of 22 billion was announced by the finance minister 36 hours after the lockdown. It involved 50 Lac insurance coverage to the healthcare workers, a move in the right direction. However, there were a few schemes part of the relief that raised a few eyebrows.

– Increased wages – MGNREGA

The Finance minister announced increased MGNREGA wage by Rs.20 to Rs. 202 per day effective from April 1st. The wage increase is said to provide additional benefits to the workers. The logic to announce this as part of the relief is hard to understand as during a 21-day lockdown the work provided through MGNREGA is non-existent. The benefit of can only be availed after April 14th provided it is not too late. Moreover, the Finance Minister added that the workers will have a benefit of Rs 2000. However, this will only be available considering that that MGNREGA worker is employed for 100 days in a year.

The added benefit also seems to be unsuitable as the weighted average for the 2019-2020 record is already Rs.221 in the MGNREGA scheme. The unweighted average in major states is Rs.226 per day. The additional benefit on a closer look does not offer any relief to daily wage workers during a lockdown and also depends on the availability of work after the lockdown. The period after this 21-day lockdown is stated by many economists as a period of recession. This is arrived at after taking into consideration of the rise in unemployment as one of its factors.

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– Food and Cash in hands of people.

The Finance Minister announced that Rs 2,000 will be deposited into the Jan Dhan Yojana Accounts of Farmers. Further, Rs. 1,000 will also be deposited into the Jan Dhan Accounts of pensioners, widows and the disabled. The Government is also to provide 5 kg of rice and 1 kg of pulses in addition to the existing amount received for the next three months.

In 2017 the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana saw the women ownership of bank accounts rise from 43% to 77%. This indicated that most of the accounts in the PMJDY were those of the spouses of the workers in the cities. To benefit from the relief provided, the individuals will have to travel back home which adds to the exodus.

(Pronab Sen-Chairman of the Standing Committee on Economic Statistics.)

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Apart from this, the government also announced a hike on the withdrawal limit of EPFO to transfer cash into the hands of unemployed individuals. The Finance Minister also announced that the center will pay the PF requirements of both the employee and the employer for 90% of the employees (for the firms with less than 100 employees of salaries less than Rs.15000).

– Moratorium on Loans

The RBI allowed lending institutions to offer a moratorium to borrowers on repayment of all loans for 3 months. The banks that have approved this includes Punjab National Bank, Union Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, IDBI, State Bank of India (SBI), Indian Bank & Central Bank of India.

This move will reduce the burden on the individuals and also provide them the purchasing power for necessities.

– Reduction of Rates

The RBI cut the repo rate and the reserve repo rate by 75 bps and 90 bps. The repo rate now stands at 4.4% and 4% respectively. This will result in a fall in interest on deposits and make loans cheaper. This is aimed to increase the spending and hopefully stimulate the economy. However, this was also done to ensure the enterprises that are affected by the pandemic can get back on their feet and avail cheaper loans.

(Prem Shankar Jha – Economist )

If we take a step back from this very welcome rate cut and consider the state of the baking sector and their struggles with NPA’s, Non-Performing Assets (as in Yes Bank), it is hard to foresee banks lending to businesses that have been financially weakened due to the pandemic. Any loans given out would be a leap of faith and RBI must ensure that the benefit from rate cuts is transferred from the banks.

Lockdowns around the globe

Countries like Italy, Spain, and France have implemented a national quarantine. The total count of cases in Italy and Spain are currently over 100,000 and France over 50,000. The United States, having the most number of cases (over 210,000) has still not imposed a nationwide lockdown taking a different pill than that taken by India. The US has primarily focussed only on hotspots and 24 states have asked their residents to shelter at home.

China, which only a few months ago was one of the hotspots for Corona, imposed a lockdown but only in the hotspots i.e. Wuhan and Hubai (60 million people) which could also be one of the reasons why the stock market in China was not as badly hit as that of other regions. (Also read: Coronavirus Impact on Global Indexes (2020) – US, Europe & More)

However, these countries have followed aggressive testing measures. India, on the other hand, has one of the worst testing rates in the world with only around 43,000 tests conducted so far. This was despite having the capacity to conduct 12,000 tests per day. So far there have been 2000 confirmed cases in India. Countries like Korea have used rampant testing measures like ‘Drive-Thru Coronavirus testing centers’ to flatten the curve to total cases. This has enabled them to catch up with the spread and quarantine effectively.

Also read: What we can learn from South Korea and Singapore’s efforts to stop coronavirus?

Relief Package Comparison with GDP

The relief package announced by the US is at 2 trillion dollars to fight the coronavirus. A comparison of the $22 billion relief package in India would be unfair. When the relief packages are compared to the respective GDP’s, it showed that $2 Trillion is roughly 10% of the US GDP. Other countries like Canada, Singapore have roughly invested around 5% of their GDP’s. However, India has rolled out a package of just 0.8% of its GDP to fight coronavirus outbreak.

This comes after former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram mentioning in his ten-point plan of action that a minimum relief package of Rs 5-6 Lac Crore was required. Despite that, he didn’t see an economic recovery on the horizon and also termed the COVID-19 lockdown as the biggest crisis the country has faced. Even after the migration crisis post-independence, every famine since independence, the tsunami of 2004, the 2008 financial crash are all put together. This further puts doubt on the capabilities of the relief package.

Is the Indian economy headed towards a recession?

The IMF has already stated that the situation worldwide is worse than the crisis of 2009. They also mentioned that we have already entered a recession and a possibility that the global GDP will shrink by $2.3 trillion. So far 80 countries have already asked for the emergency fund from the IMF. Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva said there is a possibility that $2.5 trillion will be topped for the financial needs of emerging markets.

Subash Chandra Garg, the former Finance Secretary, and former Economic Affairs Secretary has stated that the Indian growth will likely be negative next year unless the government takes measures to prevent it. He also commented that the two-thirds of the economy has been severely hit and the GDP after the lockdown will be reduced by 5-6%. Economist Arun Kumar has also gone ahead to say that the current situation is worse than those faced during a war.

The GDP does not represent all the sections of the society accurately as those with high incomes though few pull the average towards rearer ends. Hence in a situation with a possible negative GDP in the coming quarter will mean that those in the lower-income sections are devastated.

Closing Thoughts

— Extended Lockdown?

Despite having the worlds largest lockdown, researchers from the Cambridge university released a paper that suggests adding length to the lockdown to properly contain the virus. The paper suggested a three phase lockdown (21 days – 5 days rest – 28 days – 5 days rest – 18 days) or a continuous 49-day lockdown for the Indian region. Based on the observations of the current lockdown, the economy is operating at -50% of the GDP as per Arun Kumar. In addition to the effect on daily wage and unorganized sector workers, India cannot afford another extended lockdown without much more serious consequences.

There is a need to ramp up the testing done in India to catch up with the curve and hopefully flatten it. This is a necessity because the current scenario has exposed the cracks in the Indian infrastructure and its ability to cope with a crisis. India has one doctor per 10,000 people in comparison to 41 in Italy and 71 in South Korea.

— Inadequate relief measures

The current policies aimed at the poor in the form of increased income offer is just a mirage of actual help. A lot more has to be done to ease the suffering due to the lockdown t0 the poor. Any success in the relief package or hopefully a stronger revised relief package will require involvement and coordination with the state governments. The current exodus of workers could have been prevented if state governments were kept in the loop. The lockdown too would have been better implemented. Hoarding and police brutality are attributed to the lack of communication and direction from the government.

Subash Garg mentioned how over the last 70 years of our history there are no measures taken specifically to save and push businesses. The government has to roll out new policies to ensure this, especially in the current situation. Else these businesses will find it hard to start again. The severe times of 1990-91 bought forward reforms. Similarly to stimulate the economy, revised relief packages and new reforms are in need. It is already certain that the Corona Recession of 2020 (hopefully not depression) will replace all comparisons in the future that were earlier made with the 2009 crisis.

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