News & Events
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1.Govts, be smarter: Current Covid surge needs to be handled with tools other than arbitrary restrictions
Into the third year of the pandemic, governments the world over now have the benefit of experience to shape responses to a surge in infections. In India, the second wave during the 2021 summer was a searing experience. No less important in terms of imparting lessons was the fallout of a nationwide lockdown the year before. All these experiences need to be brought together as states and municipal corporations prepare to cope with the third wave of Covid infections.
The inflection point in the current surge took place last week when the daily caseload increased by 46% in a day to touch 9,184 on December 28. The rise since has been exponential and the national daily caseload reached 58,097 between January 4 and 5. It has been accompanied by a jump in daily positivity rate to 4.18% from just 0.73% a month ago. Many states have responded by curbing mobility, the most blunt instrument available in their toolkit. Delhi has a night curfew in place which will be supplemented by a weekend curfew. Tamil Nadu too has opted for a night curfew along with a full lockdown on Sundays. West Bengal’s government has limited flights from Delhi and Mumbai to three a week.
The ongoing surge in infections is happening in a context that has important differences when compared to the second wave. Around 65% of the adult population is fully vaccinated and over 8 million children in the 15-18 age group have been administered a single dose. Moreover, we have the benefit of observing the trajectory of the Omicron variant in other countries. The combined impact of these differences calls for a more sophisticated approach by state governments. Resorting to partial curfews and lockdowns will impose a disproportionate cost on the most economically vulnerable segments and not really curb infections.
The primary aim for governments is to ensure that the healthcare infrastructure doesn’t get overwhelmed. When seen in this context, Maharashtra’s approach makes sense. Media reports indicate the state is inclined to use Covid bed vacancy as a measure to choose policy options. A smarter approach along with tighter enforcement of masking rules and capacity restrictions in public spaces will help states strike a fine balance between controlling the spread of infections and limiting its economic fallout. India can neither afford to let its healthcare infrastructure collapse nor impose lockdowns. The current surge needs to be managed by a smarter set of tools.
2.At the Australia Open vaccines win, Novak Djokovic loses
Australians are huge tennis fans but they have sent away Novak Djokovic before he could set foot at the Australian Open, shattering his dream to win a record 21st Grand Slam title or beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with whom he is currently tied for the most men’s singles titles at 20. He was the favorite going in. Not only did he seal a third consecutive win at Melbourne Park last year, he has won here nine times overall.
But we are now in a time of expanding vaccine mandates and Djokovic is not vaccinated. Indeed he has quite a global reputation as an anti-vaxxer. He arrived in Australia with a medical exemption for both vaccination and quarantine. But even as both Team Australia and Victoria State were defending the exemption, locals who have seen over 250 days of lockdown were raising an outcry over it. Sending Djokovic back soothes this outcry but questions remain about why some local authorities vigorously defended the exemption while others rejected it equally vigorously. It speaks to a worldwide woe of individuals caught between different and even contradictory rules and regulations as they navigate international and other borders during the pandemic.
Above all, of course this episode underlines that from playing in sports tournaments to attending them, and a host of other facilities and services, access is going to be increasingly restricted only to those who are fully vaccinated, whether this means two doses or three or even four. It also takes place in the backdrop of Serbia, which is very proud of its tennis hero but also suffers high vaccine hesitancy, having achieved only 46.5% full vaccination, low compared to many of its European neighbors. Bottomline is that exceptions to celebrities send out the wrong message and therefore one less exception is that much better for the pandemic-hit world.
3.Message from Mumbai: On hate crimes and legal action
Online mobs spreading hate should not be allowed to continue their work with impunity
Purveyors of hate, misogyny and xenophobia have been on a boundless revelry in India, online and offline, with near total impunity and often times with support from politicians and the police. In the midst of such pervasive police apathy, the swift action by the Mumbai police in tracing and arresting three persons linked to the latest incident involving a fake online ‘auction’ of Muslim women gives hope that all is not lost. The Mumbai police action also contrasts with the inaction of the Delhi police, who come under the Union Home Ministry, and the Noida police in Uttar Pradesh, a BJP-ruled State, in a similar case last year. Whether the three arrested were indeed the creators of the app remains a question of investigation and the limited police version at the moment is that they were promoting the platform, at a minimum. The Commissioner of the Mumbai Police has said the probe is continuing and anyone involved in the crime, directly or indirectly, will be arrested and prosecuted. It is delicious irony that the Mumbai police reports to the Maharashtra government led by the Shiv Sena, long accused of xenophobic politics. The Mumbai police were also quick to act in an earlier case involving threats to cricketer Virat Kohli for standing up for his Muslim teammate.
It is indeed baffling that the Delhi police, that is expected to play a critical role in securing the lives of all important functionaries of the country, threw their hands up when faced with the challenge of identifying some random imposters on social media. Such a level of incompetence or connivance is ominous. The Delhi police say they have written to GitHub, the U.S.-based platform that hosted the toxic apps. They are also seeking the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty procedure to find information about the app from the U.S., after its Intelligence Fusion and Strategic Operations unit took over the case. All this is being revealed after a second FIR was filed this week. Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi had written to the Union IT Minister, in July and September, about several social media platforms or events that were being used to berate Muslim women. In November, the Minister replied that the Ministry was working on “identifying the gaps in current legislation to address contemporary issues of cyberspace including provisions to protect citizens, especially women, from any online harassment and cyber bullying”. While that is necessary, it cannot be an excuse to let online mobs roam free. The police must identify and arrest the original culprit, but if that process takes months on end, there have to be interim measures to enforce the rule of law. The Mumbai Police have done exactly that, in acting with the alacrity that this case deserves.
4.Third time lucky?: On economy and the third COVID-19 wave
The economy needs closer attention for a less bumpy 2022 amid the latest COVID-19 wave
India’s post-COVID economic recovery remains delicately poised at the turn of the new year — the third successive year under the shadow of the pandemic. With the Union Budget for 2022-23 less than four weeks away, the latest set of numbers capturing different aspects of the economy present a mixed picture with persistent pressure points. COVID-19 restrictions are already denting India’s services exporters’ order books, even as merchandise exports have hit a record high in December. Worryingly though, imports grew even faster last month than exports, keeping the merchandise trade deficit at an elevated $22 billion, just a tad less than the record $22.9 billion in November. The eight core sectors had a disappointing November, but GST collections from that month were reasonably healthy at around ₹1.3-lakh crore, albeit a three-month low. GST compensation cess revenues touched a record high in November, but customs duty collections dipped to a five-month low. The Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMI) for manufacturing and services were robust for December, but have moderated from previous months even as input cost pressures remain a headache for businesses along with the prospect of the latest virus wave upending normalcy again. For the first time in four months, firms surveyed for the PMI by IHS Markit reported ‘broad-based’ job losses in manufacturing and services in December. Global headwinds are shifting after the surge of COVID cases and disruptions, even as inflationary forces have central bankers bracing for interest rate hikes from the U.S. Federal Reserve this year.
It will be equally challenging for North Block mandarins to conjure up an appropriate mix of relief and support measures for businesses and jobs — preferably going beyond the credit guarantees that appear to have lost traction in sanctions and disbursals in recent months. This needs to be accompanied by a fresh ramp up in health-care spending, including on COVID inoculations and booster shots, as well as maintaining the bullish stance on public capital expenditure with a demonstrably greater purpose in getting actual projects off the ground. The prospect of more disruptions looms large, even though their extent and impact on GDP may be uncertain at this point. Preparing for the worst may be a good idea, even if it is accepted that manufacturing suffered less in the second wave than during the initial lockdowns in 2020, and may likely be even better prepared to cope with the ongoing third wave. Yet, there is a risk that damage to contact-intensive services sectors that have had another topsy-turvy year with lakhs of jobs at stake, and have barely struggled back from the first two waves, could be permanently debilitating this time around, if mobility restrictions spiral in tandem with cases. More effective interventions, with a stable and clear articulation of policy direction, could have a calming effect in 2022.