Since the federal government enforced the weeklong national lockdown starting March 24, it has been consistently urging people to stay home. This makes sense. Around the world, the only corona-control method that seems to work is social distancing: the fewer the number of people you come in contact with, the lesser the chances of you catching the dreaded virus. Yet when the lockdown was announced, many people also asked a simple question: Can everyone afford to lock themselves in their homes?
What about the daily wage earners who struggle to make their ends meet if they don’t work for a day? Or those with disabilities and the elderly living alone, who are running out of rations? The National Human Rights Commission on March 26 urged the government to look after the needs of these vulnerable groups during the lockdown. Undoubtedly, this should be the top government priority. But the problem extends beyond those vulnerable groups. People in general are confused about the terms of the lockdown. The government says they can easily buy daily necessities. But most shops supplying these essentials are now shut, as are the grocery stores.
The shopkeepers say they are hesitant to stay open as they don’t have the protective gear to keep themselves safe. To make matters worse, the police are forcefully closing many retail shops in the mistaken belief that they are required to do so, in a clear case of communication gap. Green vegetables are in short supply. Even when they are available, the prices are high. As the country is in the lockdown for the long haul, it is important to get these seemingly small things right.
After the initial panic, people have been cooperative in helping enforce the lockdown, despite constant rumors of shortages of daily essentials. But their patience will be tested the longer the shutdown continues. People are just not used to staying cooped up in their homes for long. To keep their frustration in check, a clear and honest messaging is vital. Regular press conferences will help: If the government is working in public interest, let people know about it.
The formula is simple: Tell the truth and keep us informed. If the government bungles this duty at a time of national emergency, it will quickly lose public support, to potentially disastrous consequences.