Some Ethical Reflections on India’s COVID -19 Lockdown

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Some Ethical Reflections on India’s COVID -19 Lockdown

Some Ethical Reflections on India’s COVID -19 Lockdown

May 18, 2020 01:03:37 PM (IST)

Some Ethical Reflections on India’s COVID -19 Lockdown-1In the early days of the lockdown, I witnessed some interesting moments during those short periods when I ventured out to purchase some essentials for the family.  Two farmers from the nearby villages had come with their small tempos one filled with marshmallows and the other with grapes as well as bananas.  They were going around my neighbourhood selling their produce without having to merchandise it to middlemen or merchandisers of big retail chains at the point of harvest.  In the present condition, the urban community’s consumption basket has gone through a sea change in its portfolio.  It has moved away from a second or third cell phone or computer tablets or pen drives to food, fruits and medicines.  Not surprisingly these two farmers had a lot of takers and so the market was not closed due to the lockdown for the actual exchange of goods for money took place.  The second personality in my neighbourhood was a regular vegetable pushcart vendor.  Such traders are more technically called informal traders.  He was coming with his vegetables every Saturday and we were able to pick up what we need for the week.  He helped us follow the conditionalities of the lockdown in a better way than it would have otherwise been possible.  A third fact is about a newspaper release by the State Government of Karnataka around the same time.  This news release was given a lot of space in the state news page.  It was the official figures of stocks of fruits, cereals, pulses and vegetables still available as surplus stock with the APMC.  The APMC is the main agriculture cooperative connecting both the supply and demand side in the state for these products. 

What can be seen is the shift in the nature of statistical information that has become critical and also attracts public attention – from mutual funds unit prices or share prices or commodity futures statistics to information about how much of actual stocks of natural food products, grown by our farmers are available.  Ironically the location of this information about fresh and natural food stocks was an agricultural cooperative, a form of socialization of production as well as supply, not with a hypermarket chain.  Let us not fail to notice the cognitive shift of focus in the substance of the statistics we look out for and the institutional source of those statistics.  Given the disruption in the Rabi crop harvest due to the COVID-19 crisis, it has become imperative to ensure that the Kharif harvest is not disrupted for otherwise, a food shortage pandemic along with a health pandemic would just span out.  Well, do not fail to miss out that this summer our Alphonso mangoes need not necessarily be exported, for borders are closed in today’s world.  We can have our mangoes for ourselves at some reasonable price.  To me, this present and impending reality pricks my conscience for it raises moral-ethical questions – where was I when my farmers had crop failure, committed suicide, died of starvation and malnutrition, suffered from inadequate and poor quality medical care due to lack of primary health care centers when the anganwadis were facing supply shocks, when their minimum support prices were treated with policy ad hocism, when rural employment guarantee schemes were nothing more than a passing reference in election manifestos and corporate bailouts took centre stage, when their lands were forcibly acquired for different ways of the corporatization of the national economy when the men of the rural households migrated to the cities to become cab drivers, waiters, small-time cooks, employees of food caterers serving for the big fat Indian wedding.  In other words, where was I when ultimately they were being denied their basic right to a reasonable livelihood? 

In the light of the lockdown, one of the grievous challenges we are facing is the uncertainty of large numbers of migrant workers with hardly any capacity to manage crisis trudging back to their homes in the rural hinterland also called as reverse migration.  These souls actually kept affluent urban locales and homes functional as plumbers, constructions workers, domestic helps, plumbers, garbage collectors etc and their average income was not even a full Rs. 150 a day.  The loss of even this income for them is a double catastrophe along with a harmful microorganism.  The moral question that crops up here is why did they have to migrate in the first place?  While abiding by the rules of a lockdown is to protect oneself it also includes protecting others in the community.  If the notion that protecting all includes protecting oneself too had dominated our thinking it would have been possible to have mitigated rural-urban migration initially by making rural occupations gainful and this, in turn, would have further softened the problem of reverse migration which had turned to be both a human problem and a health hazard, for now there was a twin need – to be saved from disease and to be saved from starvation. 

Another angle about the present migrant worker crisis besides the labour market in general in the country as well as in many parts of the world is the organised large scale diminution of security of employment by the propagation of the new labour market institutional dynamic called contract work.  This dynamic lead to the evolution of the ‘gig-economy’ made up of the social class of part-time workers.  The core situation of a part-time worker is the absence of consistent and regular tenure of employment.  Putting it another way an employee is not sure whether one’s current job will be available tomorrow.  Why did the labour force and the labour market witness this structural change?  One can trivialize the response by claiming it to be an outcome of competition.  The real issues are who the actual competitors are and who is fighting the market competition for whom.  This is again an ethical issue because someone is being used for someone else.  This is also true of return migrants from overseas.  Many are stranded in foreign soil with their visas having expired or nullified by the host nation.  Even in this situation the ultra-rich expatriates are willing to pay extra to return in private jets trying to circumvent the government organised repatriation process.  Labour was being used to fight the competition for profit.  While profit itself is not wrong, the ethical challenge comes out when we ask how much of profit.  Here it is appropriate to look at the logic of profit in economics.  Economics as a body of thinking has given very high recognition to the idea of economising, that is trimming down but it has also positioned this idea only with the proportion of the cost, not with proportion of profit.  All economics textbooks will propagate cost economies, not profit economization.  It has always preached cost minimisation to achieve profit maximisation but never profit minimisation to ensure equitable shares for no one can be paid more than what has been turned out. 

Given the current COVID– 19 pandemic which has crippled almost the entire world, spanning 195 plus countries all of whom are facing resource constraints and facing challenges to manage it because actually borders are shut down, a popular argument that can come out is the claim that the evolving world will be a world of isolationism.  This might be true to an extent, in fact, a very probable future reality.  But it will also be a world centred on domestic and local economies. For example, many members of the US legislature have begun to lobby for paradigm shifts in the production and procurement processes.  It is to shift the focus from foreign supply chains to domestic supply chains.  In fact, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro is pressurising Donald Trump to reduce US dependence on foreign pharmaceuticals and gradually bring the manufacturing into US soil. 

These lines of thinking mean we do not have to be throwing goods from all around the world all around our homes, neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities.  Even elastic when stretched beyond limits snaps and so is the case with long supply chains.  Conversely shorter supply chains are more robust and also more manageable because there are manageable numbers of decision points.  Let us not forget the human mind has its limits no matter whatever may be the acclaimed power of our gadgets.  Let us think from within.  How many of us use all the applications and apps in our android cell phones.  The answer almost all of us would give is very few are used and then why to have so much of clutter in a handheld instrument.  This is the same difference between overstretched long supply chains versus more robust short supply chains.  Putting it in another way the local has more vigour and firmness than the global because it will be formed by strong local socio-cultural ties.  That is to say, self – sufficiency is more potent than unfettered diversity or variety in goods of consumption and use. 

A second approach is related to the installations we need.  The fundamental question is what should be the nature of our infrastructure?  The ethical question within this basic interrogation is for whom is our infrastructure?  Let us turn these questions into an examination of conscience.  Given the lockdown that has almost stranded motorized travel what is the relevance of toll gates and fast tags.  No doubt good roadways and other forms of transportation are necessary but for what purposes.  Is our mobility meeting our requirements or making our consumption more mobile?  Are we not making the same error of overstretching both the demand and supply chain-related to normal material consumption choices?  This means our approach to infrastructure has to shift from consumption to social infrastructure.  Some examples of social infrastructure are health systems that have the capacity in excess of demand so that it can handle a crisis whenever it takes place, comprehensive primary health provisioning so that the largest number is reasonably healthy, educational arrangements that educate in the basic sciences, languages and the arts in a relatively universal manner and so on.  The physical infrastructure that is created must account more for these than propagating unwarranted forms of consumption. 

Finally as said in the very beginning one’s consumption portfolio is now dominated by food, fruits and medicines.  What kind of goods are these?  Do they meet our needs or do they satisfy our desires?  Anyone with common sense can make the distinction.  The moral-ethical consequence of this crisis is, assuming we are reasonable creatures still, man will have to learn to live according to his needs rather than pander to his desires and value those who contribute to fulfilling our material needs rather than those who meet our material impulses. 



Gerard Rassendren, Associate Professor of Economics, CHRIST (Deemed to be University). Bengaluru,; Mob: 9739761750

(Gerard Rassendren teaches economics and is interested in working on the interface of ethics and economics)


Basil Hans, Associate Professor, Aloysius Evening College, Mangaluru; Mob: 9845237602

(Basil V Hans teaches economics and is a passionate writer engaging in many areas of ethics and economic development issues.  He has many publications in reputed journals and many books to his credit)