PUNE: The Cabinet Secretary has declared that the lockdown will not be extended after 21 days. The threat of the virus cannot be eliminated unless we find a vaccine/treatment or there is some beneficial act of God. Thus, we will continue to live under uncertainty for at least the next six months to fully grasp all the dimensions of the crisis. The following note is an attempt to develop an approach using insights from behavioural sciences.
Just as there were surprises while locking down there will be surprises while unlocking. It will be useful to unlock in a calibrated gradual manner. Some states could lift the lockdown a few days earlier. These experiences will be useful for other states.
Paradigm Shift From Allowing Essential Services To Managing Non-Essential Services
- Limitation of Defining “Essential”: The current lockdown has defined a few essential services while closing down everything else. It is necessary to understand the unintended consequences of this approach. For example, Wi-Fi connection in my house is down from March 20. I failed to mobilise my service provider. I bought another connection. The technicians who were employed by the installation contractor have run away. This example will illustrate that every essential activity is preceded by a complex value chain. All chains, including value chains, are as strong as the weakest link. The worst possibility is that even the essential services will crash due to the problems in the non-essential aspects of their value chain.
- Shift to a negative list: Instead, it may be useful to create a “negative list” of non-essential activities and lock them and their value chains down. Non-essential activities can be defined as those where people have to come together like ceremonies, festivals, protests, sports, entertainment, etc. To start with, non-essential activities could be banned for some more time till guidelines for their regulations are evolved by involvement of concerned stakeholders.
- Gradual opening up of the non-essential in a controlled way: As an example, in places like shopping centres or malls, token systems should be evolved where the customer can get a token, online or offline, for identified time to visit identified shops. This would mean some more people as security guards in the mall. Even, theatres could be allowed to make people sit on alternate seats.
- Holding property owners accountable for violation of negative list: Commercial activities requiring physical proximity like dine-in restaurants, bars, theme parks can continue to remain under lockdown for another three months. The owners of these premises, not just tenants should be made liable for violation.
Enlisting Active Involvement Of Community
- Augmenting police governance with community governance: Police force alone will be grossly inadequate in terms of sheer numbers to ensure adherence to these norms. Conceptually, in the current lockdown regime, the underlying assumption is that the state is the parent and citizens are children. Instead, it will be necessary to involve the citizens in different ways. For example, in cooperative housing societies the office bearers could be authorised to implement a model behaviour code laid down by the government.
- Tracking of offenders: Many countries are using apps to locate quarantined and self-quarantined people. It will be possible to make their movements transparent through the use of technology.
- Power of anonymous complaining: Currently the ban on public programmes after 10 pm works fairly well due to someone complaining anonymously through mobiles/apps. Members of the public can be incentivised to complain to police for violation of the negative list norms.
- Additional manpower for controlling inevitable crowds in public transport: Public transport needs to be restarted, both bus and trains. Some of the private operators may charge more and ensure that people sit away from one another. Some people may choose safe but costly transport. Passengers could be encouraged to use appropriate PPE-like masks. Bus conductors could be authorised to not let a passenger inside the bus if the scheduled capacity is full or passengers are not wearing masks. Similarly, all trains could have a conductor for every compartment and can follow similar regime. It is assumed that people who have left the cities may not return so soon, hence public transport could attract lesser and manageable crowds for three months.
- Governance in the factories and commercial establishments: Many companies are practising multi-machine operation for workers. Thus, physical density in many shop floors is not a problem. Trade unions can also protect the interests of the worker as they can be authorised to complain. Necessary PPEs could be added to safety requirements. Factory inspectors also will need to ensure well-being of contract labour in terms of personal safety and social distancing. Some kind of discipline will be necessary for small and medium sector. It is possible to create health wardens on the lines of traffic wardens who can be assigned different areas for surveillance and reporting.
- Innovative Punishment: Every society has its own share of fools and mischievous people who are prone to wrong behaviour. We need to create innovative punishments for them. For example, trucks were banned from moving on Tilak Road in Pune. Still some drivers were plying. Fine was not working. Residents took to the street, started halting the trucks and forced the drivers to go back in reverse gear. That punishment worked. Publicly naming and shaming people may work well in some segments of the society.
- Continuing public communication: The whole assumption is that the lockdown has created enough fear to practise Corona etiquettes. Post-lockdown, the communication needs to change to involve the community to share its legitimate role. The new governance arrangements can also be communicated.
Customised Solutions For Different Segments
Different segments of the society have different needs, different law-abiding propensity and different compulsions. It will be necessary to find nuanced, customised solutions by following participatory and inclusive processes of governance. For example, the urban poor need to feel that the potential risk of catching Corona is more painful than the grind of everyday living. In the short term, this pain can be reduced by subsidised/free food/ration. Efforts will be required to decongest the living spaces by providing temporary accommodation in public spaces. The government can initiate a NREGA equivalent scheme for creation of public health infrastructure and services in cities for the next six months.
Prompt Legal Action For Corona Violations
Appropriate laws can be passed to deal with offences arising out of Corona violations. The law could have fines or closure of establishments. Corona violation should not be treated as criminal violations. The current judicial system cannot handle additional complaints arising out of Corona violations. It will be necessary to designate quasi-judicial authorities. Currently, there are special executive magistrates who can be trained in deciding upon Corona violation related acts and punishments as quasi-judicial authorities.
Managing The Consequences On Individuals
- Temporary career shifts: For the next six months, some people like those working in hospitality industry/restaurants/brothels etc. will lose their livelihoods in a big way. On the other hand, the state will need people to create awareness, create and operate isolation facilities, enhance medical effectiveness by providing services to medical staff, create and operate helplines, help the elderly etc. For such jobs, the government can facilitate retraining of these groups. For example, the new requirements need service orientation and people like hospitality workers have it. As per HR principles, people need to be recruited based on attitude and aptitude, knowledge and skills can be imparted.
- Centres for grieving and counselling: There is a need to create centres for people to express their grievances, mourn their losses and receive counselling and suggestions. These could be run by NGOs and expert agencies in public-private partnership mode. They could also be authorised to help in de-bottlenecking the delivery of various relief services offered to various sections of the society including elderly, handicapped, patients etc.
(The author is an independent consultant in organisation design, strategic HR and institutional development with 37 years of experience. He works with the corporate sector, NGOs, donor agencies and the government. Views expressed in this article are personal.)