I have spent the last few weeks rereading material on the multiple famines that have hit India. We lost millions to the 1876 famine, millions more in the famines that followed, upwards of 12 million to the 1918 pandemic.
As of 25 April, we have lost 800+ lives to Covid-19.
While in no way diminishing this tragedy, life will go on after the coronavirus outbreak.
Also, looking at the way other coronavirus and other flus have behaved, we should expect Covid-19 to return in the winter.
Above figure: Seasonality of Flu
Given that a vaccine is unlikely to be available by that time, we need an India playbook. A playbook that does not duplicate the lockdown choices of older, developed, more formal economies. What do I mean by this?
All of us heard the phone message on coronavirus. We have a dashboard highlighting every case and every death for Covid-19.
We do not have a dashboard for hunger.
We do not have online dashboards for daily city wise cases and deaths for TB or dengue.
A textile industry survey covering over 300 companies providing hundreds of thousands of jobs showed that nearly half of the companies did not have cash in April to pay wages.
Above figure: Industry survey covering 319 companies.
Companies are uncertain about demand in the face of silence and cancelled export orders. Every passing day sees enterprise death or enterprise comas. We do not have an online dashboard for those. The rising NPAs do not have a nifty, colour-coded crowd-sourced online dashboard.
Which means, we are acting on selective facts. We are succumbing to an acute case of selective dashboardism. At some level, we are comparing a rapid, horrific death by virus to a prolonged death-by-a thousand cuts life from a lockdown. To our all-too-human minds, the former is unacceptable, while the latter is. This lockdown is saving lives — no doubt about it. But it is hurting lives too.
Of particular concern is the lapse of measles and other childhood vaccinations in some parts of the country. Measles is a deadly disease, that used to fill wards and wards in the hospital before widespread vaccinations took root. The current lockdown to combat this coronavirus is placing 117 million children at risk because of a break in the vaccination. In developed economies, a lockdown is a choice between economy vs life. In India, a lockdown translates into a choice of life vs life. Only our selective dashboardism hides this from us.
So how does life go on?
On an immediate basis, there are a couple of advantages we have that we may not be exploiting. One is our younger population. For this we need reliable antibody tests — something which is within our capability to develop. Second is our climate, or specifically our micro-climate.
The seasonality of this virus may have something to do with effect of heat and humidity. Studies on the SARS virus (SARS-Co-V), show that the virus was vulnerable to both heat and humidity, and especially so to a combination thereof.
Above figure: Infectivity of SARS Coronavirus (105/10 μL) to different temperatures at (a) >95% relative humidity, (b) >80–89%. Chan et al 2011
This could imply that the infectivity is significantly lower outdoors than in air conditioned environments. If India can get meaningful studies going on this, they could drive micro-climate based distancing and operational norms, not just a blanket lockdown.
With so much clamouring for government money, sooner or later, government will begin to spend. There are other moving pieces, and we need to recognise that we have a once in a lifetime chance to reset to a more resilient India.
Supply Chain realignment, Investor preferences and Losses —
A lot of people have been hurt by Covid-19. Human psychology demands a villain. China’s handling of the wet markets before and since and its opacity of data have been held against it. Japan has already announced billions in incentives to reshore manufacturing or move it away from China. This may be repeated by other countries.
Supply chain changes are expensive. Plants have to be built. Machineries shifted. Links broken and reconnected. This is such a pain, that companies will do it very rarely, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime. “Not China” is only one of the parameters. An increasingly important factor companies are considering is climate risk. When considering an Indian site, companies will ask: Is a unit vulnerable to floods or drought?
The 2011 Thai floods cost the global auto industry more than $46 billion. The Chennai floods costs thousands of crores to supply chains and exposed the vulnerability of the factories. The Chennai water crisis saw water enter the income statement of a company for the first time. Water scarcity can lead to loss of revenue as well. A WRI study showed that many of India’s thermal power plants lost a combined revenue exceeding $1 billion because of water shortage.
Also, consider that investors, such as Blackrock who manage trillions of dollars, are requiring water and climate disclosures. Poor scores don’t make for attractive investments.
Covid-19 has and will cost the world economy in trillions. So do climate and water risks, over a decade. And climate and water damages will recur and increase as the years go by.
When spending, we might as well spend it on assets that will see us stronger over the short and medium term future. To move up supply chain attractiveness, to become more attractive to investors, to prevent future losses, we must build climate and water resilience. Something to keep in mind, while thinking of what to stimulate and what to subsidise.
Changing customer preferences —
All of us have been enchanted by the birdsong and the bird visitors over the past weeks. Dolphins have been seen near Kolkata. Multiple CEOs and thought leaders have opined that this virus will usher in a change to sustainable living, because people, having experienced clear air and water, will want it to stay that way.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Above figure: Visiting Kingfisher, watercolours by A&P.
Humans have a remarkable capacity to psychologically adapt to circumstances. Just as we admire the bird song and starry skies, we may as soon get re-accustomed to honks and cloudy skies. The virus has certainly revealed the awesome power of Nature. But memories tend to be short, and human response unpredictable. I’m not sure if the virus can make us respect planetary boundaries. Witness China’s reopening of its wet markets.
On a more encouraging note, companies, schools and universities have realised that working or learning from-home can work just as well for several functions, cost less and have lower climate footprint. If this sustains, we have a potentially greener and lower cost way to reimagine businesses. With luck, we might even improve female workforce participation.
Marketing guru Philip Kotler believes this pandemic may make people consume less. This, he says, builds on other growing trends, such as minimalism, cutting-clutter, climate action and the circular economy. That will have a meaningful impact on companies. While planning to survive over the next few months, keep some mindspace for the next few years. Parts of India’s start up economy are on a ventilator, with clamour for fiscal support. Is this an opportunity for the government and investors to double down on start-ups that can help build resilience over the medium term? Towards better health? Towards greener jobs and localised services? Towards building climate and water resilience?
Why not give the milk to the worthy child, one who will keep the family in good stead in times to come, rather than one crying the loudest?
The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution — India’s Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Updated Date: May 01, 2020 10:00:24 IST