The closure of India encouraged life-saving behavior changes. Make them last – analysis
Approximately two months have passed since the start of the world’s largest blockade of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in India. For millions of migrant workers across the country, it has resulted in a humanitarian crisis. But it has also been devastating for the urban and non-migrant poor, many of whom have lost their incomes.
The economic costs of the blockade have been enormous, but there may be a benefit: People went out of their way to comply with public health directives. They wore masks, washed their hands regularly, and followed basic patterns of social distancing. These behaviors can delay the spread of the coronavirus and ultimately save lives. As the Indian economy gradually reopens, we cannot afford to lose these behavioral gains, even as the novelty of the pandemic wears off.
At the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute in India (Epic India), we have studied the impacts of the shutdown for a representative sample of mostly poor and non-migrant workers in Delhi. Our study documents large declines in employment and income. During the first seven weeks of closing, weekly income fell by almost 60%, on average. Daily salaried workers were the most affected first, followed by salaried workers, perhaps when it became clear that the blockade will be extended. The situation worsened over time. In early May, nine out of 10 respondents reported that their weekly income had dropped to zero.
The reduction in employment and earnings is not a surprise. However, what really stands out in our data is widespread compliance with public health directives. Compared to pre-coronavirus levels, mask use increased from 20%, at the height of the most recent air pollution crisis, to 90%; time spent indoors increased from 44% to 95%, and regular hand washing became almost universal. We need to see these kinds of behaviors, important to limit the spread of the virus, as some of the harsh gains from this long and expensive block.
This week, closing restrictions have been eased across the country. In Delhi, movement within the city is on the rise again. As a little normality returns to everyday life, some actions should be prioritized. First, the government must not only maintain but be prepared to expand its food assistance and relief efforts. In our data, a third of the respondents reported that they benefited from the Delhi government’s food assistance services, suggesting that these aid centers may have decreased some of the difficulties caused by the closure. For many, it’s unclear when employment will return, and with infections on the rise, these services should continue.
Second, we must ensure that the highest public awareness of Covid-19 is maintained so that the behavioral changes achieved during this blockade do not fade. Most importantly, everyone will need to wear a mask at all times. This is crucial in densely populated cities like Delhi, where it is often impossible to maintain a physical distance.
In order to keep the infection rate as low as possible, the masks should not only be mandatory, but should also be free. In the current situation, wearing a mask generates positive externalities. The government should find ways to support private sector investments to expand national mask production and subsidize it for the majority.
Some state governments have already introduced mandatory mask policies and penalties for noncompliance. Although this may be effective at this time, the opportunity for authorities to selectively enforce such rules could end up causing more harm. Instead, we must take advantage of the behavioral habits adopted so far to establish lasting social norms that promote the widespread and appropriate use of masks (for example, masks should not be worn hanging from the chin). Perhaps India’s leaders, social influencers, and celebrities can play a role in promoting such norms.
Some argue that producing so many masks has environmental costs, and therefore people should make their own using standard materials found at home. But the effectiveness of Do It Yourself (DIY) skins in reducing the spread of Covid-19 is unclear. Until a vaccine is available and widely administered, which could take years, it will be important to ensure that people wear high-quality hospital masks.
The blockade gave the government and people valuable time to prepare for Covid-19’s rise, and it also likely prevented countless deaths. We still don’t know if the full benefits of the blockade (flatter curve, life-saving behaviors, and so on) will outweigh the huge economic and humanitarian costs. The battle has only just begun, and the end result will depend on whether some of the key gains from this blockade, in terms of public awareness and public health compliance, will persist into the future.
Kenneth Lee is an economist and CEO of Epic India. Michael Greenstone, professor of the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service in Economics at the University of Chicago and director of Epic, Patrick Baylis, assistant professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and Harshil Sahai, are co-authors of this research. a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago
The opinions expressed are personal.