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Opinion – COVID lockdown: A double-edged sword

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Whenever the COVID positive cases surge, a section of society immediately starts batting for a lockdown through their social media handles. This section mostly comprises doctors, government employees, and well-off people. They feel that the chain needs to be broken and it can only be done by locking people inside their homes. However, the business community by and large opposes the imposition of a lockdown especially in the Kashmir valley where long periods of ‘hartals’ and curfews have always remained a routine. The lockdowns have dented the economy of Kashmir by thousands of crores in the past.

A report published by a Valley-based business body – Kashmir Trade Alliance (KTA) had stated last year that successive lockdowns since August 5, 2019 dented Kashmir’s economy by over Rs. 45,000 cr. Markets in the Valley had first remained shut for months after the abrogation of Article370 on August 5 in 2019. And just when economic activities had started picking up last year, the COVID-19 lockdown started. Something similar happened this year. After a long and harsh 2010-21 winter amid a significant dip in COVID positive cases, economic activities started picking up significantly. The tourists too started arriving in large numbers but we are back to square one yet again. The imposition of lockdown especially affects the people that live hand-to-mouth.

 

On Friday, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries said that the fresh lockdown has pushed people who survive on daily earnings to starvation. The Chamber appealed the Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha to announce “financial sustenance package” for the affected. In a statement, KCCI said: “While the business community was still struggling to revive after the unprecedented developments since August 2019, the fresh spell of lockdown has created havoc for many of the families, which survive on daily earnings.”

“From the transporters to Shikara Walas to small shopkeepers, people from various walks of life including local laborers and street vendors have not been able to earn even a penny,” the KCCI president said. “One can only imagine the plight of families who have not been able to earn anything in the given conditions,” he added.

If not working from home, workers in the private sector too despise the lockdown as it caused millions of job losses last year. Almost all in the private sector got affected with some losing jobs and others going through steep salary cuts. To counter this argument, the proponents of the lockdown now say the pandemic too flattens economies like the ‘Corona curfew’. Therefore, it is better to be healthy first and the rest will follow.

The arguments for and against the COVID lockdown add to the dilemma of the government. Last year, the central government received a lot of flak for imposing a sudden lockdown. The decision had created panic across the country and the entire world watched with horror the plight of migrant workers through their television sets or social media. Some walked for hundreds of kilometres and others covered the same distance through bicycles during the humanitarian crisis. Others were seen pushing the hand-carts carrying their children or the elderly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi even apologized to the public later for calling a national lockdown.

“I apologize for taking these harsh steps that have caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people. I know some of you will be angry with me. But these tough measures were needed to win this battle,” Modi had then said during his monthly ‘Mann ki Baat’ address.

In stark contrast, the centre this year is now being censured by many for not calling a nationwide lockdown. Amid mounting pressure from his political allies to top business leaders and international health experts, Modi has so far refrained from issuing a nationwide lockdown call. Around a fortnight back, he had called on states to only consider lockdowns ‘as the last option. “I urge states that they should consider lockdowns as the last option. They should earnestly try to avoid lockdown and focus on micro-containment zones,” he had said. And the pressure to impose a nationwide lockdown has only mounted by then. Therefore, the decision to impose the lockdown or not continues to remain a double-edged sword for the government.

The Jammu and Kashmir government, meanwhile, imposed and extended the lockdown till Monday. In the backdrop of the rising COVID positive cases, the business leaders that were initially opposing the move accepted the decision with a heavy heart. “We cannot afford it, but there is no choice” – many were found saying on social media. The government in the meantime also announced some COVID-related incentives for its employees including doctors. The announcement of Rs. 25,000 special TA to Darbar Move employees particularly angered a section of the business community. One business body said it ‘tantamount to double standards’ as small-time traders were left to fend for themselves. “Who will compensate for the loss?” –they said while demanding sops for the traders’ community as well. At the same time, the present scenes of a ‘lockdown’ angered the shopkeepers more. Barring shops, everything else seemed to function. Few spots even witnessed heavy traffic jams. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Kashmir unit questioned the lockdown and its intensity. “People are confused about the lockdown. Passenger vehicles are openly violating the COVID19 guidelines and while lockdown has been only restricted to the closing of shops,” a BJP statement said while urging the J&K government to either impose a strict lockdown or lift all the restrictions. Though the lockdown during the first couple of weeks last year was very strict, it lost steam later. A time had come when the lockdown remained confined only to the main roads with interiors bustling with business activities. We are probably moving towards the same this year. At the same time, the term ‘smart restrictions’ has started making rounds on social media. It is easier said than done but the people at the helm have to come up with out-of-the-box ideas so that smart restrictions are kept in place without greatly disturbing economic activities. It is no easy task but some headway can be achieved if the local business leaders and civil society members are taken on board during decision making.

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