A healthcare worker gives a dose of Covishield to a shepherd man during a vaccination drive in south Kashmir's Pulwama district. (Representative image: Reuters)
As the COVID-19 second wave recedes and states unwind restrictions, the government can speed up the recovery of the economy and insulate it from another surge in COVID-19 cases if it takes appropriate policy measures to give more freedom to people who are vaccinated and imposes restrictions on those who resist the jab.
The central and state governments can take such steps as soon as India’s vaccination drive accelerates further, and people have easy access to inoculation.
This will make sure that the economy, particularly the worst-hit sectors such as travel, tourism and hospitality, as well as cinema halls, gyms, beauty parlours and malls, bounce back quickly; and, more importantly, they are able to sustain operations even if the country faces the dreaded COVID-19 third wave.
Safety, Freedom, And Business
Equally important is enforcement of safety protocols, which people had abandoned in the run-up to the second wave. The public discourse about the second wave has focused on how the mutated virus became more virulent. However, disregard for safety measures such as social distancing and proper use of masks was a big, but underreported, factor. Hotels were sold out in winter and hardly anybody wore masks outside big cities like Delhi. Even in Delhi and Mumbai, people were partying or mingling in weddings without wearing masks.
Safety protocols along with freedom for the vaccinated people should go hand-in-hand. The government is already issuing vaccine certificates to people who have taken both the jabs. The next step should be to reward them. Such people should be allowed to travel freely and check into hotels without any constraint. Similarly, if a hotel’s staff are vaccinated, it should be allowed full occupancy with guests who have taken the jabs.
This is particularly important for tourism-dependent economies of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Kashmir. Even Kerala, which has fared miserably in the second wave, will be able to minimise the economic damage if vaccinated tourists are allowed.
People in the Himalayan states had suffered heavy losses last year in the peak tourist season because of the strictly enforced lockdown. Most small hotels, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and street vendors count on the few summer months to earn enough to survive in the rest of the year. Instead of prolonging the restrictions, like Uttarakhand has done, it should welcome vaccinated tourists because having two consecutive seasons washed out by the pandemic will cripple the finances of its people.
Cinemas should also be allowed to go back to the house-full days if they are filled with vaccinated people. The same goes for gyms, malls, and a host of other places. It is important to note here that allowing them to resume normal business without checking for vaccination is a risk.
Making vaccination mandatory in workplaces has already begun in the developed world. Last week, a US judge dismissed a lawsuit by employees of a hospital in Texas after 200 people were suspended without pay for failing to get the necessary vaccination.
India must move in the same direction. The risk is evident in the way Indians have responded to the decline in infections. The highway to Shimla was choked with traffic as soon as Himachal Pradesh allowed people to travel to the state without an RT-PCR test report. Tourists have also reached the popular hill station Mussoorie after a long gap, but it is reported that many were seen walking on the Mall Road without masks and many had to pay a fine at Kempty Falls when 30 to 40 of them gathered at a pool, violating social distancing norms.
Such behaviour can lead to the COVID-19 third wave. Therefore, India needs a clear policy to entitle vaccinated people to get on with life.
Continue Safety Protocols
However, giving entitlements to vaccinated people will not be easy. There will be howls of protests, say from most opposition parties citing that the system is iniquitous and discriminatory, particularly when vaccines do not guarantee full immunity.
There is merit in the argument, but once vaccines are freely available, the economy cannot be allowed to be choked by Covidiots — to use a slang for people who ignore safety protocols and fuel the pandemic.
Another problem is that at the G7 meeting in the United Kingdom, India has opposed introduction of vaccine passports saying it is unfair and discriminates against developing countries. That is sound logic in the international arena, particularly when some countries do not trust the efficacy of some vaccines, including India’s Covaxin.
However, once vaccines are freely available within India, the government should adopt a different approach; otherwise, the risk of infection will again rise as economic compulsions will prevail over safety norms. People tend to overlook how the risk of infection increases with normal life. For example, nobody blames cinema halls and public transport, particularly trains in large cities, for igniting the second wave although crowded trains and indoor spaces are perhaps a bigger risk than the demonised Kumbh Mela.
Maharashtra has allowed cinema halls to reopen with some restrictions in the relatively low-risk areas of the state, which has cheered the industry, but it certainly exposes people to risk because opening up is independent of vaccination.
Further, there are no norms for ventilation in indoor spaces such as restaurants, cinema halls and offices. This is important as the virus is now regarded airborne. Hotels, cinema halls, malls and restaurants need to inject fresh air into their premises for the safety of staff and guests, but doing this in summer months is very costly for the sector, which is already devastated. In any case, many hotels and restaurants do not have air conditioning systems that allow fresh air to get in.
Under these circumstances, a policy to give more freedom to vaccinated people is critically important to make sure that the virus does not strike with the third wave. It’s a tricky situation for the government as it would face a lot of criticism for extending privileges to those who have been vaccinated — but it would be much worse for the people, the economy, and indeed the government, if there is a third wave.
If the remedy makes Covidiots suffer, so be it.