As the federal government mulls yet another nationwide lockdown, let us take a moment to reflect on those who have suffered the most from the previous complete or partial lockdowns: not the big business owners, not their employees, or most people who enjoyed their chats and walk during the lockdown.
Those most affected are citizens who were suffering from the vicious consequences of pervasive and structural inequalities even before the lockdown: daily wagers who are the backbone of the national economy, even if their contributions are not officially counted.
Amid repetitive warnings from the World Health Organizations that the fight against this virus is far from over, including strong admonitions that a second waves of infections are probably just few months away, it is worth noting that Nepal has not even reached the peak of the outbreak. The worst is yet to come.
In this increasingly complex scenario, the decision makers have a tough choice: should they keep the economy open, give more respite to ailing workers and enterprises or should they considering enforcing a strict lockdown again? The stakes could not be higher: either let people risk their lives with a disease that is hard to tackle or allow many others to suffer from the lockdown’s economic impact. Perhaps it could be helpful to reformulate this dilemma from a vulnerability perspective.
Should policymakers allow the most vulnerable segments of the population to die from the pandemic? Or should their lives be jeopardized by getting them back to work in order to revive the beleaguered economy?
The way we answer these two questions is important. How many people working in the formal economy will literally lose their jobs if the work and movement restrictions are re-imposed? How many businesses could sacrifice some of their income and yet survive with a different business model that leverages on line, smart work? What can the State do to soften the hard impact on these corporations? How much fiscal space is there for the government in this emergency? Can resources otherwise allocated be diverted to corona-control? What can big donors do in such a situation?
A country like Sweden that took a very liberal approach to the lockdown paid a high price. Singapore, after enforcing a so called “circuit breaker” lockdown, a necessity after haphazardly easing up restrictions, is now back on business despite suffering a high daily per capita infections. The secret to this approach is to impose very strong regulations, expecting the citizens to strictly follow them out of a sense of civic responsibility.
Qatar, quite impacted in terms of number of persons infected in relation to its overall population, imposed draconian rules.
In addition all these countries have the resources and the knowhow of an efficient health system that is capable of dealing with severe outbreaks. Yet the leaders there are aware that even their best hospitals may not cope well in case of severe community outbreaks.
Can Nepal follow suit and enforce a strong compliance system? Can the government mobilize private hospitals in case infections rise further? Are the private hospitals ready for that?
Many are going to lose something or the other in these circumstances. A progressive and far-sighted government should decide who is going to lose the most: those who are vulnerable and marginalized or the better off, including the roaring middle class?
While the latter deserve special consideration in terms of economic relief in the form of stimulus packages, the former are those at most risk no matter what the government decides.
Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths to promote social inclusion in Nepal. He can be reached at email@example.com