2 May 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) Recovering early: On India’s COVID-19 patients-
Data for COVID-19 is still a long way from giving a complete picture, but it is encouraging that the basic metric of the number of those recovering as a share of confirmed infections is showing improvement in India.
The Health Ministry has said that the percentage of recoveries currently stands at just over 25, almost double of what it was two weeks ago.
National data on other parameters appear similar to disease trends witnessed globally, with the worst outcomes encountered among elderly patients — translating into a case fatality(death) rate of 51.2% for Indians older than 60.
What is important to note, however, is that whether it is recovery or death, not all cases are recorded for a variety of reasons. There may be untested people who have recovered.
IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH:
Also, in the long term, most recover from the infection. It is therefore imperative(needful) to find positive cases early and assess the pace of recovery accurately.
Among the countries moving to a mass-testing strategy after a measured lockdown and successful control over viral transmission is New Zealand. In terms of deaths, there could be unknown fatalities caused by COVID-19 outside hospitals.
Doctors in the United States have made a contrasting determination: of people who had the virus, but died of unrelated causes. These findings and trends underscore(foccuses) the importance of research on the progression of the pandemic in India.
LOW DEATH RATE:
The comparatively low death rate from COVID-19 in India, officially estimated at 3.2%, remains a topic for systematic study. Even accounting for inability to identify all virus-caused deaths and misclassified fatalities(deaths), the absence of a large number of severely distressed patients in hospitals stands in contrast to the experience abroad, notably in the U.S., as well as many countries in Europe.
The Johns Hopkins database gives the fatalities per 100 confirmed cases as 15.7% for the U.K. and Belgium, for example. There are many hypotheses(supposition) for the less dismal(poor) outcome in India based on the impact of climate, benefits of immunisation, and other possible factors, but they remain untested.
While India’s fatalities may be low, and an improved recovery rate will help revive the economy, there is genuine worry that patients with non-COVID-19 conditions are at greater risk for poor health outcomes due to lack of access to care during the pandemic.
The public health strategy for COVID-19 has to sharply focus on helping people determine their infection status through widely available testing.
This will enable selective quarantining, planning of welfare measures and participation of people who have recovered in trials for potential therapies such as convalescent(recovering) plasma transfusion.
With a relaxation of the lockdown, India’s strategy will need precise(accurate) and intensive measures to drive down the reproduction number for the virus. An improved recovery rate is positive news, but reducing new infections is crucial.
2) Ominous contraction: On core sector output-
The latest data on core sector output is signalling that considerable economic pain lies ahead in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown that commenced on March 25.
Steepest fall in core sector output in at least 8 years portends(warning) protracted(longing) economic pain.
DATA FROM COMMERCE MINISTRY:
The provisional figures released by the Commerce Ministry show that production at all but one of the eight industries comprising the core sector shrank(declined) in March from a year earlier, resulting in the sharpest contraction in the index since the new series began in April 2012. That output contracted by as much as 6.5% in a month when most economic activities ground to a halt(stop) only in the last seven days, is a worrying augury(sign of what will happen in the future).
While output at petroleum refineries slid(declined) only by a marginal 0.5% as a bulk of the transportation sector was idled(halted) only in the last week of March, the 7.2% and 13% contractions in electricity and steel production, respectively, reflect the underlying stress in the economy, most crucially on the demand side.
With all non-essential industries and commercial establishments ordered shut as part of the lockdown, demand for electricity declined by more than 9% in March, according to data from the National Load Despatch Centre.
While the power sector has been exempt from the lockdown because of its essential nature, the slump(decrease) in demand from commercial customers is bound to have a significant sector-wide cascading(spilling) impact as a result of heightened cash flow problems at the already stressed distribution companies that deliver electricity over the last mile to consumers.
Coal, the only sector to post a positive figure in March as output expanded 4%, also presents a far from reassuring picture as growth slowed sharply from February’s 11.2% and was less than half the 9.1% pace seen in March 2019.
And with demand for coal from user sectors spanning thermal generators and the key process industries of steel and cement unlikely to revive any time soon, production of the crucial commodity is very likely to shrink in April.
With the construction sector hit hard by the lockdown and likely to face serious labour supply issues even after the economy gradually reopens, cement may see production shrink in the first month of the new fiscal year by an even greater extent than the 25% drop seen in March.
The mayhem(disturbance) in the oil market with global crude prices tumbling(declining) is also certain to undermine the industries in the energy sector. Undoubtedly, April’s overall core output appears headed for an even sharper contraction.
And with the eight major industries having a weight of 40.3% in the broader Index of Industrial Production, it is certain to drag industrial output as a whole into negative territory. The Centre may be left with little option but to massively lift public spending on infrastructure once the lockdown eases in order to revive the reeling economy.
(The Index of Industrial Production (IIP) is an index which shows the growth rates in different industry groups of the economy in a stipulated period of time. The IIP index is computed and published by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) on a monthly basis.
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3) It’s about food, nutrition and livelihood security-
The current national lockdown to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the problems of food, nutrition and livelihood security confronting a large number of rural people, in particular, migrants to cities.
While some measures have been announced, such as provision of additional rice or wheat, some pulses and oil free of cost, as well as ₹1,000 cash for the purchase of other essential commodities through the Public Distribution System (PDS), we need to understand the different dimensions of food security in a holistic manner in order to address this problem in its totality.
AVAILABILITY OF FOOD:
The first is the availability of food in the market, and this is seen as a function of production. Fortunately, thanks to the Green Revolution, today we have enough food in the market and in government godowns.
This is a great accomplishment by Indian farmers who converted a “ship to mouth” situation to a “right to food” commitment. Yet we cannot take farmers’ contributions in terms of sustaining production for granted.
While some special exemptions have been given to the agricultural sector, farmers are confronted at the moment with labour shortages, many of the inputs, including seeds, are expensive or unavailable, marketing arrangements including supply chains are not fully functional, pricing is not remunerative(well paid), and public procurement is also not adequate(enough).
There is no room for complacency(self-satisfaction), as in the absence of demand, the lack of storage or value addition facilities, especially for perishable commodities, we do not yet know exactly what the impact of the current pandemic will be on the kharif sowing and food availability in the future.
WIDEN THE FOOD BASKET:
The second dimension is the access to food, which is a function of purchasing power, as unless you are a farmer and grow your own food, others have to buy it.
Fortunately, the government, through the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and the PDS, has assured some additional food to every individual during this crisis. This should be further strengthened and the food basket widened by including millets, pulses and oil.
Steps should also be taken to avoid hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients in the diet. In light of the closure of schools and anganwadi centres, and the consequent disruptions in the provision of midday meals or other nutritional inputs, it is important to pay attention to the life cycle approach advocated in the NFSA, particularly the first thousand days in a child’s life, when the cognitive(mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) abilities of the child are shaped.
We may otherwise see negative effects on nutritional security in the medium to longer term.
Food security and access to nutritious, good quality food is also contingent(subject to chance) on job security. Today, a lot of people employed both on farms and in the non-farm sector are without jobs.
If job security is threatened, then so is food and nutrition security. We have to ensure people do not lose their jobs, and one way of doing this will be to ensure value addition to primary products.
One example of such value addition is the Rice Biopark in Myanmar, wherein the straw, bran, and the entire biomass are utilised. This would of course mean some attention to and investment in new technologies that can contribute to biomass utilisation.
The Amul model provides a good example from the dairy sector of improved incomes to milk producers through value addition.
Similar attention needs to be given to the horticulture( art or practice of garden cultivation and management) sector on a priority basis. Women farmers are at the forefront of horticulture and special attention needs to be given to both their technological and economic empowerment during this crisis.
WORK UNDER MGNREGA:
A second pathway to livelihood security for small and marginal farmers and landless households, and women within them, is strengthening the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
The definition of a worker in MGNREGA has so far been applied only to unskilled, manual work, and not to skilled jobs in agriculture and allied activities.
Given the lack of jobs and incomes during the COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative to expand the definition of work in MGNREGA to cover skilled work related to farmers and their farming activities. This is particularly important for women farmers and workers, who should not just be given tasks of carrying stones or digging mud.
Apart from farming, they engage in a range of essential care tasks, including caring for children, the elderly and sick people.
These tasks, often invisible, need to be recognised as work and supported with appropriate education, including on nutrition.
FOCUS ON NON-FOOD FACTORS:
The third dimension of food security is absorption of food in the body or its utilisation, which is dependent importantly on sanitation, drinking water and other non-food factors, including public health services.
Ensuring that these services are functional depends on the capacities of the local panchayats and their coordination with other local bodies. The lack of adequate clean water in particular has come to the fore(focus) in both rural areas and urban slums in the context of COVID-19, where one of the key measures for stopping transmission relates to frequent hand-washing.
ENSURING FOOD AVAILABILITY, FOOD ACCESS AND FOOD ABSORPTION:
If we can ensure food availability, food access and food absorption, then we have a fairly robust(strong) system of food and nutrition security. All the above dimensions are, however, now threatened by the novel coronavirus, as discussed earlier.
It is very critical to highlight the linkages between agriculture, nutrition and health. While the PDS may be able to meet calorie needs, the inability to harvest, transport and market perishable fruits and vegetables at remunerative prices during the current crisis, has not just deprived farmers of incomes and livelihoods, but consumers too are deprived of micronutrients in their diets.
Farmers making losses, and agriculture moving from being job-led to jobless, raise questions about the sustainability of the production cycle. At the same time, this can have long-term consequences on nutrition and health security.
India avoided what could have been a big famine in the 1960s through the help of technology and public policy, which actively worked with and supported farmers to achieve significant increases in yield. Today’s problems are not as daunting(tough).
Through a combination of farmers’ cooperation, technological upgrading and favourable public policies in procurement, pricing and distribution, we can deal with the fallouts(disadvantages) of the pandemic. We hope that this pandemic will help recognise the contribution of our farmers.