ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Exiting the Lockdown Sustainably

Avinash D Persaud (apersaud@me.com) is Special Envoy to the Prime Minister of Barbados, who has been chairman of the regional grouping of Caribbean nations, CARICOM, during the crisis.

.

Exiting the lockdown before a vaccine is available or herd immunity is in effect is a problem, especially because it appears that up to 50% of people with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic—they could have and carry the disease without symptoms. In the British Medical Journal’s review of data on infections in Wuhan, China and other studies of the data from Italy, 78% of carriers were asymptomatic. The only way of identifying asymptomatic carriers would be through widespread testing or contact tracing. Exiting the lockdown in the presence of asymptomatic people before a vaccine or herd immunity will send us back into lockdown, again and again.

Not exiting the lockdown is a problem too. No amount of drama in the economic statistics—a doubling of unemployment in a few weeks, 100% declines in government revenues or revenues in travel-related sectors, a contraction of the global economy—describes the stark reality that a vast majority of the population in developing countries do not have the savings to survive without income for even short periods. Not all countries are like Norway. While the bloody protests in the United States reflect deep iniquities, it would be hard to conjure up circumstances more likely to tear apart the social fabric of our societies than to make a large part of the population unemployed and hungry and take away their everyday freedoms.

There is an essential psychological and time dimension too. The Brits may invoke the spirit of “Dunkirk” at the beginning of the first lockdown, but not after repeated, prolonged lockdowns and depressing uncertainty as to when or if this will change. Dunkirk occurred right at the beginning of the war, not amid its destruction. No wonder, then, that the prospect of opening up is being greeted with relief and not much analysis.

There is a clue as to what we need to do to live with COVID-19, before a vaccine is made available. Many of those most vulnerable to falling off the social, economic, and psychological edge because they are now incapable of providing for themselves and their loved ones are often those least likely to have complications from catching COVID-19—the young and healthy. Many of those we need to protect, the elderly and sick, are often those least affected by a lockdown because they were not working full time. Some are still receiving their pension cheques. Further, forcing families to remain in small spaces, near the old or with those who need psychological outlets, may create new risks. Lockdown is a blunt instrument.

To lockdown or “open up the economy” is a false dichotomy. More useful distinctions are between (i) people who are predominantly safe and those who are at risk, and (ii) activities that are predominantly safe and those that are risky. We need to exit the lockdown after a period long enough to see those with symptoms, treat and isolate them, and carry out contact tracing. But we can only sustainably exit the lockdown by ensuring that (i) safe people are doing safe things in safe ways, and (ii) people at risk are shielded and remaining in safe places, doing only safe things. Within these two guard rails, a significant amount of economic activity can return, saving jobs, livelihoods, and the revenues necessary to provide the essential services society needs.

This exit plan is what we are doing in the Caribbean. The region has been devastated economically, but has had a good lockdown health-wise, and is destined to have a good return. The plan requires three things.

First, we need a way of identifying safe people and those at risk. We can do this through a combination of identifying the safest population segments and testing them. Yes, we need sufficient test kits and modalities of testing and perhaps certification. But, besides those with existing respiratory issues, the latest data suggests that key risk factors are age (the over 65s) and being overweight (a body mass index of over 40), two risk factors that are easy to screen.

Second, we need to lay down the criteria of a safe activity, in particular, physical distancing and wear protocols, hygiene practices, and limiting points of human contact with vulnerable people. It may be possible to make much of what we do safe using protocols and technology. We would need to consider how this is monitored and enforced.

Third, we need to ensure that safe people are doing safe things in a safe way beyond work, when they return home or how they get to work. We would require plans to segment homes and transport and ensure that risky people and safe people are kept secure and isolated from everyone else. There will be many homes where such segmentation is not possible, and then we may have to pull into service for the period of this emergency the private accommodation and transport services currently lying idle in the tourism sector.

This plan is about three main things. First and foremost, it is about public health and keeping people safe post-lockdown. Second, it is about exiting the full lockdown, bringing back activity and stopping the spread of severe risks to society. Third, it is about breathing hope and killing despair. It is a plan that engages all and gives all a sense that they are doing something positive about their lives and circumstances.

 

 

 

 

Updated On : 18th Jun, 2020

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top