Shedding Some Light at the End of the Covid-19 Tunnel: Plotting a Way Forward

  • Opinion by Asif Zaman (dhaka, bangladesh)
  • Inter Press Service

‘Life vs. Economy': A false dichotomy

As lockdowns have been repeatedly extended arguing that economy can be revived but not the dead, it has become increasingly clear that ‘lives and livelihoods' are intrinsically intertwined. The longer the lockdowns, higher is the risk of hunger and hence death.

Lockdowns can set back progress and people's welfare irreversibly, especially for the vulnerable. Most ‘casual' labourers, petty businesses and others in the ‘informal' economy find it especially difficult to survive extended lockdowns.

With millions already jobless, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warns that nearly half of global workforce are at risk of losing livelihoods. The United Nations University-World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) estimates that a 20% income or consumption contraction could increase poverty levels by 420–580 million. It is estimated that 9 out of every 10 students in the world have been disrupted.

Therefore, many countries, especially developing ones, are under increasing pressure to re-start their economies.

Re-starting the economy: ‘To be or not to be'

The countries that are easing lockdown restrictions are also seeing spikes in the COVID-19 infections. South Korea re-tightened lockdown restrictions after spike in cases. Iran reopened in April to save the economy, but within a month designated Tehran and eight provinces as "red zones".

The World Health Organization (WHO) and reputed medical journal, The Lancet, warned against scaling back lockdown restrictions too quickly.

Countries now need to find an optimal manner of re-starting the economy. However, the timing and pace of relaxing restrictions will depend, among others, on what the countries have done during the lockdown period, e.g., increase supply of personal protective equipment (PPEs), intensive care beds (ICUs), creating mass awareness about precautionary measures, etc.

Countries also need to maintain law and order and a planned process of opening the economy is required. So, what should this planned process look like? What will the optimal approach be based on?

Here we suggest 3S – Smart, Science-based and Sectoral – solutions

Smart Solutions

Epidemiologists talk of "smart containment" that all can practise. By ‘smart' we mean effective but cheap; innovative but easy-to-use solutions to minimize the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. This requires cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines: public health experts, clinicians, industrial-organizational psychologists, economists, architects, and engineers. Lessons from the best practices of the globe need to be compiled, customized and tested.

One of the main reasons why countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam have coped better than others is that they learnt difficult lessons after the SARS epidemic of 2002-04. The same can be said about Ghana, Senegal and some other African countries which experienced the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak .

Good primary-health systems can devise and disseminate sensible adaptations as seen in Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala. Rwanda and the Indian state of Karnataka installed foot-operated handwashing stations at busy places such as bus depots and railway stations. Such facilities should be installed in slums and work places. Local leaders must play an active role to spread health messages, regarding face-masks, and isolation of suspected.

Science Based Solutions

Science means data. Armed with data, governments can continuously refine their policies. Up to date data on both health and socio-economic outcomes will support evidence-based decision-making. However, low statistical capacity needs to be addressed urgently. The solutions for workplace safety must have solid scientific foundation - risk assessment of a workplace and strategies for mitigation must be scientific.

To limit the risk requires an epidemiological approach that focuses on the places and people most likely to spread the disease. Thus, greater focus has to be on high-risk urban slums, prisons and refugee camps where people live in congested quarters with limited facilities for good hygiene practices. For example, architects and urban planners are experimenting with innovative solutions in Dhaka.

Tracing, testing, isolating and treating have to be an integral part. But mass testing is expensive, and the Vietnam experience of targeted approach coupled with contact tracing and selective quarantine seems more suitable for poor countries.

Sectoral Solutions

Solutions for the Garments Industry, Banking Sector, Construction Sector, etc. need to be tailored based on sectoral and site-specific risk assessments. Then, customized protocols for the various sectors need to be developed so that these sectors can start operating by minimizing the risk of contagion.

For example, industrial engineers can redesign the workplace of RMG industries to ensure adequate physical distancing with little changes. The workers' flow or movement needs to be properly designed and monitored. There should be protocols during entry to the factory and during their stay. Special equipment like automatic/foot operated hand washing stands or disinfection chambers using food grade disinfectants can to be installed at the gate of each floor.

The service sector requires customer/client flow solutions. These solutions ensure customer/client satisfaction and safety of both customer/client and service provider.

The construction industry requires site management protocols such as: site entry/egress procedures, limiting number of workers on site, maintaining worker hygiene, delineating risk zones, etc. The construction project schedule needs to be designed in a way so that workers can work in parallel avoiding high labour-intensive functions.

All sectors need to have customized protocols for COVID-19 cases: procedures for detecting symptoms, isolating infected staff and arranging hospitalization if needed. Psychological counselling is required to elevate worker morale.

Government stimulus packages can be tied to the compliance of the guidelines for workplace safety. Adoption of new risk minimizing technology can also be subsidized through the stimulus package. However, building awareness among entrepreneurs is also critical in successful implementation of such guidelines.

This is a mammoth task to prepare sector-wise customized protocols. These protocols have to be approved by appropriate regulatory bodies. Sectoral experts can play a key role in helping government develop these guidelines. Signs that the virus may be weakening also gives us hope.

Dr. Asif M. Zaman, Environmental Engineer, MD Esolve Intl Ltd. He also teaches at the North South University, Dhaka, Bangladesh ([email protected])

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