Discover more from Boring Money, by Shreedhar
Lockdowns aren't helping and we're not talking about it
Covid-19 lockdowns ignore everything we know about how the virus spreads, cause the poorest the most pain, and serve as a tool for political showmanship at best
It’s been more than a year since India’s first lockdown, and we’re back to where we started. Lockdowns are the flavour of the season with nearly every major state imposing strict restrictions on movement and economic activities.
Last week, India breached the 4 lakh Covid-19 cases per day mark. The most to be recorded anywhere in the world since the start of the pandemic.
So lockdowns are justified. Right?
“Imagine bombs are dropping outside, would you want to go outside?”Since the start of the pandemic our framing of Covid-19 has been one of war. 21 days to start out. Now there’s no end in sight. Unlike war, though, Covid does not throw bombs at you. Not yet, at least. Instead, the virus spreads from person to person.
Through aerosols. Or particles suspended in the air.
Not when the Covid gods spot you from above and target you because you stepped out against Modiji’s advice. Not even when you touch something a Covid-positive person touched earlier. Covid spreads through aerosols. It’s something we’ve known at least since July last year. WHO finally came around and updated its guidelines on how the virus spreads, two weeks ago.
This is extremely important, which is why I’ll say it again. Covid-19 spreads through aerosols. Period. All that hand sanitiser you used in the past year? Useless. All those sanitisation drives that governments are still doing spraying chemicals all around? Useless. Even harmful (we’re inhaling all of those noxious gases).
Or let me put it this way. Opening a window is a better way to combat Covid-19 than putting alcohol on your hands. I am not being superfluous. For a disease that spreads through particles suspended in the air, replacing the air with fresh air is the best way to go about it. Ventilation, yup that’s ventilation.
Now let’s look at what Delhi, India’s capital with arguably the best medical infrastructure in the country as well as a government that has kept healthcare at the forefront says in its guidelines. Last month, the city imposed a lockdown and released a 7-page document with instructions on how to go about life. The number of times “ventilation” was mentioned in the document—zero. For a disease that spreads through air, the number of times the guidelines say “please replace your air regularly” is ZERO. It’s the equivalent of skipping “put water/sand on the fire” in the guidelines on how to put out a fire. It’s that bizarre.
The war analogy is reflective of how we saw and continue to see Covid-19. Wars require immense personal and societal sacrifice. Resources are diverted. Compromises are made. The government prioritises the war  over everything else and expects everyone to do the same, no matter people’s personal circumstances. That’s exactly what’s happening. But our governments are scampering about trying to put out a fire while a water hose lies unused by its side.
What do lockdowns achieve?
There’s something about lockdowns that is, ironically, deeply comforting. A lockdown signifies the maximum possible public health intervention. “We can’t take any chances. The situation is grave. We are serious.” But while this phrase—public health—has come to the forefront, we have forgotten the ‘public’ in public health. We’ve ignored what a lockdown does beyond just keeping people from home.
What does a lockdown do? Yup, yup. Close down businesses. Shut people’s movements. But what does a lockdown do on an individual level? It criminalises normal, human behaviour. Eating at a restaurant. Walking with a friend. Going to the park. Visiting a place of worship. Earning your living. If you do any of this, you’re a reckless, bad person. And you better face the consequences.
Let’s think again about the public in a public health intervention. The result of lockdowns is that it essentially asks the public not to be the public and do public things. Lock, stock and barrel.
Okay, this is a little crude but I’ll tell you what this reminds me of. If you’ve got a cat, you’ll know that they absolutely need to scratch things. It’s something cats do. There’s two ways to deal with this. One, you declaw them. It’s a painful, even illegal process which amputates cats’ claws. You’re pretty much removing your cat's equivalent of fingertips. Or, second, you could get your cat a scratching post. It’s not perfect. Your cat probably won’t use it all the time and still scratch your furniture every now and then. But, hey, your cat can still be a cat!
My fundamental problem with blanket lockdowns is that they aren’t a public health intervention. They eliminate the public and pay nil consideration to people’s needs. It’s the laziest intervention possible.
I know, I know. Just saying “lockdowns don’t consider public needs” is unconvincing. Especially while the counterargument is that lockdowns save lives. That’s pretty convincing.
So let’s look into the messaging around the lockdown: Stay home. Stay indoors. Only essential activities allowed.
“Stay home” is a piece of advice that has come out of this pandemic which is only a little more helpful than saying “be positive” to a person with crippling anxiety. It doesn’t ask the fundamental question: why are people stepping out? And since it doesn’t ask it, it doesn’t answer it.
For one privileged asshole to stay home runs in the background a whole machinery  that is kept alive by people who don’t have that choice. Cooks and chefs working in badly ventilated spaces. Ecommerce warehouse personnel. Farmers. Workers in factories (who’s going to manufacture all those plastics that we get our food delivered in, otherwise?). The stay home mandate puts the entire machinery to work for those of us who can actually stay home and work. And I will never understand why the number #1 message of the pandemic (apart from wash your hands, which we didn’t know any better of starting out) is a piece of advice that by design cannot be followed by the vast majority of people who aren’t working in the endearing ‘knowledge economy’.
If “stay home” wasn’t bad enough, stay indoors is worse.
Okay, here’s a thought experiment. What if there was a virus that almost exclusively spread indoors. So much so that 99.9% of its recorded spread in a particular country is through indoor spaces. What is the one message you wouldn’t want to propagate? Stay indoors? Right? Yeah, we messed that up as well. We’re still messing that up. Even publications that I admire are making that mistake. My former employer The Ken being one of those.
The best way to interpret “stay indoors” is as “stay home”. But we already know that we can’t just all stay home. So why even use words that muddy what we so overwhelmingly know about the virus and confuse people about how it spreads?
NYT sums it up-
There is not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table. 
These days, I’m not able to use the phrase “essential activities'' with a straight face. I was in Goa not long back, where the police have even been closing down street-side vegetable vendors and grocery stores. “But aren’t these supposed to be essential activities?” I’d ask the next person. He’d be just as frustrated about missing the bus on buying his daily quota of veggies.
The truth is, though, the longer you wait, the more things start getting essential. Food is the bare minimum on some level, sure . But wait a couple of weeks, and your laptop’s going to stop working. And then you need your local computer repair shop to be operating. Or your fridge is going to conk, how are you going to store all those veggies you just bought in bulk? And you need a whole big supply chain that not only manufactures every little refrigerator component, from the plastic shelves to the coolant, to be functional. Else you can expect a price gouge. Or, your spectacles might break. But opticians may or may not be essential. Depends on the mood of the local government. One guy I know had to rotate between the same two underwear for months. Oh, and laundry isn't essential, so one can guess how that must've gone.
The worst about this classification of essential vs nonessential isn’t that it leaves behaviour (and livelihoods) to the whims of some bureaucrats drafting a 20-page document that tries to cover all possibilities with legal precision. The worst about this classification is that it takes out inherent risk assessment out of actions. It puts them on the same plane, and then asks us to choose from whatever is deemed essential. Even though a grocery hop at an indoor, air conditioned store is much riskier than going to the beach, the former is an essential activity and allowed (subject to whatever limitations) while the latter is debarred completely.
Why must essential or not be the limiting factor over risk assessment? I could do the most frivolous activity possible and not increase the risk of spreading the virus. Why shouldn't I be able to do it?
Ab kare toh kare kya?
A question that we’ve not confronted is about how we should be opening up (or should’ve opened up long ago), apart from seating and occupancy restrictions.
The first, most foremost action that we needed to take long back was to convert all street facing restaurants and storefronts into outdoor spaces buzz. A number of European cities did exactly that.
This cannot be done at the central or even state government level. Allocating street space to businesses would need local government participation. They’ll need to close streets to cars, move parked cars elsewhere and ensure that whichever business (no matter “essential” or not), that has street space outside, can make full use of it. These, alongside street food vendors and hawkers can bring life back to near-normal. Both for citizens as well as business owners. Doing all of this isn’t easy, but hell yes it’s easier than shutting down an entire country for months on end!
This still excludes those businesses and shops which can’t move outdoors. They might be located in malls, or the nature of the business might make moving outdoors impossible. That’s bad—but think of all the money that the economy would save by opening up all outdoor and outdoor-convertible (apologise for the neologism) businesses! Instead of mourning a receding economy, this money can be used to support businesses which don’t benefit from an outdoors policy. Instead, we’ve converted a total zero number of restaurants in the entire country to outdoors. It’s nothing but a self-imposed handicap.
When I told my friend that I was in Goa last month and that it was entirely deserted—some mornings I would be one of five people at the open, windy beach—the reaction that I got was “ab toh Covid hawa mein hai”. Covid is now in the air.
She wasn’t wrong. But this just goes to show the extent to which communication has been absent. Covid was always in the air. But how we interpret airborne is where the cake lies. North India is not unfamiliar with air pollution . Every winter skies are engulfed with smog. Air pollution is, well, airborne. The way to save yourself from pollution is by closing the windows. Ventilation is bad. Indoor air, even without a purifier, is better than the air outside. If people start considering Covid’s airborne spread to be like that of air pollution, we’re done for.
Instead, the best way to think of how Covid spreads would be by thinking of it suspended in the air like steam. Boil a pot of water outdoors and you won’t feel the steam. Boil the same water in a badly ventilated kitchen and the air will start getting damp. This analogy might very well break down somewhere but it works as a good thumb rule. Badly ventilated spaces without people would be more unsafe than a well ventilated space with people, because the virus can be suspended in the air for hours!
The largest communication gap that we must jump is that the choice is between lives and lockdowns, and that we must choose. There’s no one answer for every country around the world. I’m not saying lockdowns don’t work at all. They do. They did for rich, sparsely populated countries like New Zealand and Australia. But it’s naive to think the same model can be applied to India and hope that it works. These are also countries that are distributing thousands of dollars in aid to all its citizens. You can’t do one without doing the other.
And we need to pay more attention to the long term effects of lockdowns on individuals that aren’t immediately apparent. A staggering 230 million (!!) people have been pushed into poverty due to the lockdowns. This is a number nearly twice that of the population of Japan. Some people suggest that lockdowns are okay as long as the poor can be fed. But these are poor people who have entirely run out of their savings. They have no money. Would we still be in favour of the lockdowns if we had to give up all our assets and savings as they did? The way things look right now, people who scrape through the lockdowns with zero savings are going to have to work longer in life. Their retirement will be pushed by a few years. Which means that the effects of the lockdowns will even be faced by the next generations, because today’s generations’ retirement will be pushed back. And unemployment was already an issue that our government had no answer for back in 2019 (we re-elected them in spite of that). 
Covid is bad. It’s really serious. But the choice was never between locking down or dying from Covid. The former just has a body count we won’t see right away.
 I don’t mean that Covid shouldn’t be given highest priority. But giving it sole priority means that we’re okay even with people walking thousands of kilometres to get home or eating animal carcasses for lack of food.
 Two recent large gatherings strike as possible exceptions. The Kumbh Mela and election rallies in a number of states. Both of these are inordinately crowded situations and outside the bounds of reasonably crowded public space. But two observations. One, I suspect the main risk of the Kumbh isn’t when people gather side by side on the bank of the Ganga. I’m not saying that’s safe to do, but the real risk lies in what happens when they go back to their presumably stuffy tents and dorms in the night. Two, I believe election rallies could be reasonably safe if only people had worn masks and made sure not scream/shout. Speaking loudly/shouting/singing spreads aerosols that wouldn’t spread otherwise (yet another aspect of the spread that us plebs weren’t told about). The farmers’ protests have been going on for months and there hasn’t really been an outbreak reported from there. Ditto in the BLM protests in the US. The former weren’t even well masked—just outdoors.
 This idea of “stay home” reminds me of Sarojini Naidu’s observation for Gandhi—"It costs a lot of money to keep this man in poverty."
 Scratch beneath the surface and the ridiculousness of this becomes more and more apparent. Delivering food from restaurants comes under essential services. All food. All restaurants. Imagine being in India and craving Mexican food during the lockdown and being glad that it’s marked as essential.
 As an aside, nearly 20 lakh people die because of air pollution in India every year.
 Unemployment aside, we have completely forgotten the children. School going children who haven’t met their friends and teachers in a year. Some schools in some states did open for a month or so (those in Mumbai didn’t), but these kids are going to face long-term social as well as educational consequences that no one’s talking about. And I mean middle class kids. Poor kids have probably dropped out of the system for good. Child labour is bound to shoot up post pandemic.