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Eleven Lockdown Lessons for Posterity

It is that time of the year – where even the most incorrigible couch potatoes wish to venture out of their homes. It is ironic that during normal times, many prefer to sit at home with their eyes glued to the idiot box and when there is a national call for discipline, are itching to get out under one pretext or the other. Hopefully, the early #lockdown will keep more Indians ‘safer than sorrier’ and will also give them the time to introspect and reflect on the fact that every cloud has a silver lining. Notwithstanding the fact that it has also caused grave inconveniences to a host of people, viz., the ailing, the daily wage earners, the public transport operators, etc., in addition to the humongous impact on the economy and the GDP. However, on a more positive note, here are the various lessons that have become obvious over the past fortnight or so (please feel free to add your own insights) -

I am not familiar with every town and city but would tend to believe that in major metropolitan cities in India, many individuals would be commuting for at least 2-4 hours each day from residence to office and back. They now have all the time in the world (3 weeks or more) to use this time wisely to inculcate new habits – meditation, reading, exercise, etc. This would certainly help them to live healthier, more fulfilled lives. It has also taken the stress out of driving – even those who love to drive or bike, would hardly enjoy the peak hour congestion on the Indian city roads, would they now? Suddenly people have more time on their hands – would it all go away once the lockdown is over? It is quite apparent that a majority of the people can actually work from home and still make the world go around on its axis. Oh yes, it has caused bandwidth issues and exposed the reprehensible quality of broadband internet and 4G wireless internet that is dished out by almost all the providers. Would organizations now realize that there is a potential win-win situation out here? ‘Work-from-office’ can be reduce to just 1 or 2 days per week. This essentially means hot desking can be expanded to include every employee. Office space can be reduced by 50% or more, leading to significant cost savings. Add to that the lower cost of internet, lower consumption of electricity and other utilities, lower administration costs, savings in passenger transportation, possibly higher productivity and most importantly – better wellbeing for their employees, which most companies aver they really care about. Last but not the least, if the avoidable human populace stays off the roads, it makes life far more bearable for the populace that cannot avoid commuting by public transportation for their daily livelihood.

The impact on the environment was also expounded upon in an earlier post on this blog. It is not just about cleaner air and reversal of greenhouse gases. It is also about a dramatic reduction in the burning of fossil fuels including petrol and diesel. It is also a relief to all the flora and fauna around us. It puts a rest to controversies whether or not global warming is true – instead it gives us an ability to observe and note down the visible and invisible differences in the atmosphere during the period of lockdown. Lastly, it calls upon all the world leaders to take up as a number one priority – the task of building a cleaner, more sustainable but less avaricious world.

In the past few decades, India has rapidly ascended to being the virtual diabetic and obesity capital of the world. The advent of processed food from the west is one of the root causes that has afflicted the growing affluence of the middle class. I have made a note to expand on this subject in a later post on this blog. There have been hundreds of jokes and memes floating around on the consequences of ‘sitting at home’ or ‘working from home’. Several jokes point towards the fact that one is expected to put on more weight during this period. Contrary to popular opinion, I would tend to think otherwise. I think this period has put an end to needless junk food and the growing menace of people wanting to dine out frequently. It should have also reduced the consumption of packaged processed food due to lack of availability. Not only does this highlight the fact that we can, actually, survive without junk food, it also seems to indicate that more people would actually get healthier by eating home-cooked meals and even home-made savouries and snacks. Will people learn from this and ensure that they continue sticking to their newly inculcated healthier food habits?

Every crisis gives rise to a large number of altogether new subject matter experts. The COVID-19 crisis is no different. From the miserable media to a bunch of angry, frustrated people who vent their misery by cribbing and complaining and fabricating, it has become difficult for the common man to isolate fake news from the genuine; difficult to ascertain whom to support and whom not to. It is somewhat sad to see that the criticism is often not constructive but destructive and rarely (if at all) is accompanied by alternative suggestions. Even as the government was criticized for ignoring the poor, the migrant labour, the daily wage earner, in its haste to impose a lockdown, thousands and thousands of individuals, groups, organizations, NGOs, religious places, etc stepped in to help. They are trying their best to ensure that no one goes hungry and that they have a place to rest. Can we transform this into a state of permanency as well? This is perhaps the ideal time to ascertain just how much would it cost the nation to ensure that no citizen goes to sleep hungry. Then look at permanent (not temporary) establishments to take care of this and means to find the resources, that are not then mis-utilized. It is also the right time to ascertain what a common minimum program would call for?

In a state of emergency, we were able to construct hospitals and new facilities in a matter of days. We have all the architects, technical expertise, professional advisors and skilled manpower in the world to plan, design, execute and administrate a world-class healthcare system for the citizens of India. Do we really need a crisis to prove our capabilities or propel us into action? Can we not undertake this on a war footing? Undoubtedly, it calls for resources and some deep thought as to how to make it financially viable and sustainable. But then, we also have some of the best brains in the world – even ignoring those Indians who have chosen to work for other countries.

Indians are generally known to save a larger proportion of the income as compared to their counterparts in the west. This is driven by fear and insecurity, especially as one nears old age due to lack of a full-fledged healthcare and old age retiral system in India. The lockdown should enable each family (not just each individual) to increase his or her savings at this time. Sadly, this would only apply to those who continue to receive their salary and allowances during this period – but that could be a very large number in this country. Savings would result from not indulging in pubbing, clubbing and dining out, purchasing fewer number of packaged and processed food items, virtually no consumption of fuel, no visits to malls buying unnecessary stuff, no visits to multiplexes to spend large denominations on popcorn and samosas. This should be clearly discernible and set aside for the future. The learning is complete if it continues to be applied after the lockdown ends.

Indians should be glad they generally have an intact family system. There are many nuclear families, but in a large number of cases, the parents are living with one child or the other, ensuring they all stay together at a time such as this one. The number of nuclear families further split by divorces may be quite small. This occasion should not just give rise to each one getting on the other’s nerves but also provide for some quality time together. This is also the right time for the spoilt brat to help out his spouse in the daily housekeeping, learn cooking or baking and make himself generally useful around the house (remember the extra hours per day he now has?)

This unique global crisis has brought out the fact that developed nations seem to be more vulnerable and less immune as compared to poor and developing nations. It also seems to emphasize that elitism is shallow, that the rich are in fact, also less immune than the poor and therefore have a greater stake to contributing to build a better more inclusive India. It also appears that we can survive without making self-gratifying trips abroad. Can we then spend our vacations within the boundaries of the nation and boost tourism as well as enrich the local populace?

The Corona virus crisis has also re-established the ancient Indian way of greeting another person – the ‘Namaste’. Whether it was intentional or otherwise, it undoubtedly kept contagion at bay. Let us look at a few other customary practices. The idea of purity and pollution (and somehow this sub-continent seems to have linked them) forms the foundation of Indian ethos. What was probably conceptualized and formulated thousands of years ago has been cemented over the centuries, although it is probably on the decline now (or would it rise like a Phoenix once more?). We always wash our hands with soap and water before and after meals. We always wash our hands and feet upon returning home. We always leave our footwear at the door and don’t traipse all over the house distributing dirt, dust, grime and filth (and yes - our streets are filthy). We have not used hand sanitizers or their equivalent from the beginning of time, even today it is clear that soap and water do a better job. We did not believe in sharing glasses and containers or plates or vessels – again for the sake of better personal hygiene. Even today, a large proportion of the Indian populace would not put a bottle directly to their lips – but their number is dwindling every day. And lastly, unlike their western counterparts, Indians use their hands and water to clean their bottoms after defecating. How on earth can a piece of paper render it clean? Also, they tend to use their left hand for this ‘dirty’ task, because 90% of the population is right-handed. One of those possible superstitions that has transcended centuries. So what is the learning? That we re-emphasize not just personal hygiene but also public hygiene – just as it was thousands of years ago.

Unintended at conception, this has turned out to be a rather long article, but hopefully an insightful and reasonably entertaining one. So how do I end this? It would be inappropriate if I end this without speaking of the impact of the crisis on the stock markets – worldwide and in India. We Indians are also famous for the herd mentality. Logically, one would tend to think that with stock prices having fallen to their lowest levels, this was the time to buy and not sell or wait. Rationally though, one would say that timing the market perfectly is near impossible. So, what should we do then? We should continue to invest through SIPs, not sell in panic if we are holding value stocks and in case we have an extra bonus coming our way, carefully select and buy a few select stocks which are at their 52-week lows. Another alternative, is to carefully select and invest in a few equity-oriented mutual funds. Do remember, however, that mutual fund investments are subject to market risks.

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