India’s lockdown encouraged life-saving behavioural changes. Make them last

It’s been about two months since the start of the world’s largest coronavirus disease (Covid-19) lockdown – 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 non-migrant and urban poor, many of whom have lost their incomes.

The economic costs of the lockdown have been enormous, but there may have been one benefit: People did their best to comply with public health directives. They wore masks, washed their hands regularly, and followed basic social distancing guidelines. These behaviours can slow the spread of the coronavirus, ultimately saving lives. As the Indian economy gradually reopens, we cannot afford these behavioural gains to be lost, even as the novelty of the pandemic fades.

At the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in India (Epic India), we have studied the impacts of the lockdown for a representative sample of mostly poor, non-migrant workers in Delhi. Our study documents large declines in employment and income. Over the first seven weeks of the lockdown, weekly income dropped by nearly 60%, on average. Daily wage workers were hit hardest first, followed by salaried workers – perhaps as it became clear that the lockdown will be extended. The situation worsened over time. By early-May, nine out of 10 survey respondents reported that their weekly income has fallen to zero.

The reduction in employment and earnings is no surprise. What truly stands out in our data, however, is the widespread compliance with public health directives. Compared to pre-coronavirus levels, mask usage 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 nearly universal. We need to view these types of behaviours, important in limiting the spread of the virus, as some of the hard-fought gains of this long and costly lockdown.

This week, lockdown restrictions have been eased across the country. In Delhi, the intra-city movement is on the rise again. As some semblance of normalcy returns to everyday life, a few actions should be prioritised. First, the government should not only maintain but be prepared to expand its food assistance and relief efforts. In our data, a third of respondents reported benefiting from the Delhi government’s food assistance services, suggesting that these relief centres may have lessened some of the hardships caused by the lockdown. For many, it is not clear when employment will return, and with infections on the rise, these services should be continued.

Second, we need to ensure that maximum public awareness of Covid-19 is maintained so that the behavioural changes achieved during this lockdown do not fade away. Most importantly, everyone will need to wear a mask at all times. This is crucial in densely-populated cities like Delhi, where maintaining a physical distance is often impossible.

To keep the infection rate as low as possible, masks should not only be mandatory, they 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 scale up domestic mask production and subsidise it for most.

Some state governments have already introduced compulsory mask policies and penalties for non-compliance. Although this may be effective at the moment, the opportunity for authorities to selectively enforce such rules could end up causing more harm. Instead, we need to leverage the behavioural habits adopted so far to establish lasting social norms that encourage widespread and proper mask usage (for example, masks should not be worn hanging off 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, so, people should just make their own using standard materials found at home. But the effectiveness of Do It Yourself (DIY) masks in reducing the spread of Covid-19 is not clear. Until a vaccine is both available and widely administered, which could take years, it will be important to make sure that people wear high-quality, hospital-grade masks.

The lockdown bought the government and the people valuable time to prepare for Covid-19’s rise, and probably also prevented countless deaths. We do not yet know whether the total benefits of the lockdown – flatter curve, life-saving behaviours and such – will outweigh the massive economic and humanitarian costs. The battle has only begun, and the final outcome will depend on whether some of the key gains from this lockdown—in terms of public awareness and public health compliance—will persist into the future.

Kenneth Lee is an economist and executive director, Epic India. This research is co-authored by Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor 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, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Chicago

The views expressed are personal

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