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After the lockdown: How will government treat us?

May 16, 2020 14:13 IST

'There are many questions that come to mind as we consider the reality of India and what Indians will be expected to do from the time this lockdown is opened up,' notes Aakar Patel.

IMAGE: Migrant workers near Chandigarh on their way to Uttar Pradesh. Photograph: PTI Photo

With luck we are likely to exit the lockdown and re-enter a new world sometime this month.

India has, as has been reported widely (and for some reason acknowledged with great pride by our government), the harshest lockdown in the world.

It scored 100 on a British university index measuring the scale across the world, and one reason why it is harsh is that it is coercive.

The word lockdown has come into common usage globally, along with "social distancing" (a phrase apparently coined or at least first used by the South Korean leader) after COVID-19 hit the earth.

But it means different things in different nations.

The common factor is the closing down of shops, establishments and businesses.

But at the level of the individual, it is not the same.

In most democracies, it is up to the individual to determine to a large extent whether they can go outside.

Exercise is allowed in many nations, and in the United States people can drive around and public transport is open, including flights.

I have a friend in California who was speaking of going to the wine country with his family to escape the tedium of his flat.

Driving out of the city and driving around in general is allowed there.

It is assumed that the individual will follow guidelines and there is no curfew-style lockdown on people enforced by the police.

In the Czech republic, parks and public spaces are open as are outdoor sports facilities.

The only condition is that self-imposed social distancing guidelines apply and only two people can exercise together.

People can fly abroad and bicycling is allowed as is the opening up of stores that cater to cyclists.

In Sweden, restaurants and bars are open and gatherings limited to 50 people.

Again, here it is assumed that the individuals will do what is right for themselves and protect each other by both keeping a safe distance and wearing appropriate protection.

In China, including in Wuhan, construction activity has begun and factories are open.

Other than distancing, there is a temperature check of people entering buildings.

Norway opened its kindergarten schools last month and other children also began schooling.

Germany also opens schools while in Spain commercial activity has begun.

The schools that have opened in the countries referred to have done so with children seated apart, and parents forbidden from entering the school buildings.

IMAGE: A health worker checks the temperature of migrants standing in a queue in Patiala. Photograph: PTI Photo

I am listing all this because, sooner or later, India, or at least large parts of it, will be reopened.

And we will need to do what the rest of the world is doing: Exiting our harsh lockdown and living our lives as normally as possible given the change in circumstances.

The problem, and this is connected to the harshness of our lockdown, is that the State does not trust the individual in India.

The assumption from the State is that the citizen will 'misuse' individual liberty and get up to mischief if not threatened or coerced.

The fear of punishment and not thoughts of societal good or even self-preservation, is a more effective lever for behavioural change, in this line of thinking.

That is why though the entire world went into lockdown, we went into it as a 'curfew", a word that signals to the police that they must be tough on violators.

IMAGE: Volunteers distribute food among the needy in Jabalpur. Photograph: PTI Photo

It is true that the citizen also does not extend that trust to the State.

The arrival of the police on the scene is a signal for everyone to flee in our parts, just as criminals and drug dealers do in the movies of the West.

We flee even though we have done nothing more than act as bystanders, because our fear, and it is a justified one, is that we will get tangled up and blamed or beaten casually just for the act of being there.

The arbitrary manner in which the absolute lockdown is extended here in India is another example of this mutual lack of trust.

And to top it all, we are a society of scarcity.

The State has not been able to develop public transport and so we run trains and buses that are so densely packed as to beggar belief.

How does such a condition transform itself overnight into one where six feet of distance must be kept between individuals? It cannot, that is certain.

What will such a condition be replaced by? That is less certain.

Will shared autorickshaws come to an end where five strangers hop into the same vehicle and sit cheek by jowl?

If they do, then how do the poor get to work in a nation where most and perhaps as many as nine out of every 10 people in cities must get to work to eat the next day?

Heaven knows.

Once the nationwide curfew has been lifted, and law and order fully devolves again to the provinces, how does the Union enforce guidelines it is currently forcing through the Disaster Management Act?

There are many questions that come to mind as we consider the reality of India and what Indians will be expected to do from the time this lockdown is opened up.

All of us in the world will go into a new space which has new rules in the post lockdown world.

But what happens in a society that does not have high levels of trust and yet must be trusted to act voluntarily to do the right thing and behave in the appropriate manner will be fascinating to see.

Aakar Patel