COVID-19, POST LOCKDOWNS, BEFORE THE VACCINE

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The ‘new normal’ may continue to be traumatic, writes Rajendra Aneja

As lockouts ease across nations, life will not go back to the earlier “normal”, till a vaccine is found to neutralise COVID-19. Finding the vaccine, may take 12-15 months. Then, we have to inoculate the whole world. Expect lockdowns, on and on-and-off basis, for the next 18-24 months. So, our “locked-down” way of living and working, with occasional relaxations, may be the “new normal” at least for some time.

We will have to wear masks, practice social distancing, avoid large groups, etc. Even if bars and restaurants are open, we will sit at appropriate distances. Cars, trains and planes, will carry fewer passengers.

Schools and colleges may hold classes online. Offices will operate with 50 per cent of the staff operating from their homes. Getting part-time domestic help may be difficult; we may have to cook our own foods and wash our clothes.

Densely populated countries in Asia and Africa should undertake mass-testing of their populations. Cities which have many slums and congested localities, should aim for 100 per cent testing. Testing for Covid-19 should be made free. The costs should be borne 100 per cent by governments.

The economies of all countries will be confronted with nil to negative growth rates in the current year. Many factories will find it difficult to re-start their operations, since their migratory labour has returned to the villages. It will not be easy to lure them back. Many labourers may remain ensconced in their villages, till the disease is controlled.

Consumers will save, rather than spend. Having been through a traumatic lockdown, the first in the history of mankind, consumers will conserve their monies for unchartered days ahead. As companies face declining demand, jobs are likely to reduce. Hence, unemployment could augment across countries. It may be necessary to provide unemployment benefits to displaced workers.

Large corporations will shed people; their revenues will decline. Companies which are cash rich, will be marginally comfortable. The stock market will oscillate. Governments will have to provide additional incentives to industries to kickstart production.

Many governments will not have the money to provide welfare to all citizens. However, this is not the time to scrounge. Governments should resort to deficit budgeting for about two-three years, but ensure that the poor are saved from further ordeals.

The world has not faced a health and economic crisis of this scale, since World War II. The responses of all governments, must be equally gigantic in all areas, including health, public welfare and fiscal policy.

The recent violence in Lebanon is a grim warning of how a protracted lockdown can fray tempers. Due to the lockdown scores of workers and youngsters, who do not have savings are idling at homes, many without food and money. This is happening across countries. The frustration of the hungry, will overflow in rioting onto the streets.

Any government which declares a lockdown, has the legal and moral responsibility to feed those who do not have or cannot access food.

If developing countries lift the lockouts too soon, they run the risk of massive infections, which their fragile health systems cannot manage. They are short of testing kits, hospital beds and medicines. If the lockouts are extended indefinitely, then the unemployed will revolt. Unemployment allowances, medical benefits, pensions for senior citizens, etc., do not exist in developing countries. So, the pain of hunger is more.

Governments will have to act with compassion, discretion and start opening selected economic sectors gradually, so that the disease is contained and yet people are able to make a living.

The doctors, nurses and medical personnel, who minister to Covid-19 patients, render a great service to humanity. They deserve recognition and reward. They work beyond the call of their duty exposing themselves constantly. The pressures on the medical fraternity will continue, even after the lockdowns are eased. The disease can surface anytime, anywhere.

Many citizens, especially the young and the old are finding this current phase, very traumatic. So, a large number of people will require psychiatric counselling.

The scientific community and WHO, will be under intense pressure to concretise a set of medicines to treat Covid-19 and discover a vaccine expeditiously. Even after the vaccine is discovered, it will be a challenge to produce five to seven billion doses rapidly, to ensure every citizen in the world is inoculated. This will require robust global logistics.

International air travel between countries may not commence for three to four months. There could be limited flights, even within countries. Social distancing will be practised even during air travel. This means fewer passengers and higher fares, to cover costs. Smaller, regional airlines may face closure.

The human race is engaged in its biggest survival battle, with a disease which we have not yet understood, for which we yet do not have a globally accepted set of medicines to treat it and do not yet have a vaccine to prevent it. The stresses between USA-Iran, USA-China, Russia-Saudi Arabia on oil, etc., should all recede.

Presidents and Prime Ministers across the world, should suspend all border disputes, trade disagreements, etc., till Covid-19 is resolved.

Covid-19 is teaching everyone, the importance of washing hands, using sanitisers, maintaining hygiene, observing cough etiquette, etc. Those who have the money to buy various hygiene and sanitising products, can augment their immunity. Covid-19 could usher a revolution in cleanliness and sanitation amongst those who can afford hygiene products.

However, about 30 to 40 per cent of the global population lives on low or daily wages. According to the ILO, there are 244 million global migratory workers. They are desperate for food. How will they buy sanitisers, when they do not have the money to eat?

About 900 million people in the world live in slums. Sometimes, around 100 persons use a single toilet in these slums. Governments need to improve the hygiene levels and living conditions in the slums of the world.

We are all going through some stress and anxiety these days. A poem I wrote, 51 years ago, in 1969, entitled, “Never Give Up” may be relevant these days:
“When mountains of trouble tumble down,
When the loyalty of friends has disappeared,
When those whom you helped try to shun you,
When those whom you admired doubt you,
When you are saturated with shocks,
When the body refuses to take another step,
When the spirit has fought enough,
When everything is at its lowest ebb,
It is then,
Then, that you must not give up.
The path may be long,
And the bare feet may bleed,
The tears may pour down incessantly,
And the heart may be as heavy as lead.
It is then, that you must not give up.
It is then, that you must not complain,
For he who complains accuses himself.
Every night has a day following it.
After the rains come the rainbows,
And after the pain comes the healing.”
This is a time, for all nations to join forces, irrespective of ideology and religion, to defeat a disease that threatens everyone. An unknown, invisible virus has frozen our world. All our global technologies, digitisation, space programmes are inadequate to counter Covid-19. This is a humbling time for mankind globally. However, failure is not an option.

Aneja was the Managing Director of Unilever Tanzania. He is an alumnus of the Harvard Business School and the author of “Rural Marketing across Countries”