PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF THE GOOD…

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The title of this piece is attributed to Voltaire and has been used in different forms by different people, one of the common variants being ‘The best is the enemy of the good’. Robert Watson-Watt who developed the early warning radar in Britain to counter the rapid growth of the Luftwaffe, propounded a ‘cult of the imperfect’, which he stated as “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” Often the perfect solution comes too late and with catastrophic results. This wisdom is also the basis of the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ where, in search of a perfect solution, increasing effort may actually result in poorer returns. These are good models to remember as we debate the lifting of lockdown and resumption of normalcy. I get this feeling that we are in search of a perfect solution and that is resulting in a paralysis of sorts. Is it time to make a break from safe game-play?

Each extension of lockdown has been preceded by highly televised video-conferences giving the impression of consultation and consensus – as it should be. It is also a great way of sharing and diffusing responsibility in full public glare. Each state has different perceptions, different fears, different theories in which they believe and different political compulsions. Further, under conditions of uncertainty, there is a tendency to tread the ‘safe path’. Everyone wants to be in a position to say “I told you so” if and when things take a turn for the worse. I suspect there is also a general feeling of under-confidence in our own abilities. We had 40 days to build up what we could to enable us to fight the pandemic (with still a week to go) and by every measure, we have done well. I think the time has now come to take calculated risks and open up in earnest.

What is the perfect solution? Hotspots totally contained. No further new cases. Recoveries increase drastically. Fatalities become zero. Treatments are successful. Drugs become effective. A vaccine is found. Hospital loads return to normal. Likely any time soon? Does not need any great analytical skill or profound knowledge to make a guess. In a country like India where basic precautions just cannot be ensured by a vast majority of the population and where social distancing is a luxury, if we wait for such conditions to come about, we will remain in perpetual lockdown. A perfect solution will lead to an assured destruction of life and livelihood. We have already reached a stage where the line between saving lives and saving livelihoods has become wafer-thin.

I suspect that we may come out with a ‘neither here nor there’ solution. The first indication of this is being seen. The order given to open some inconsequential neighbourhood shops is an example of measures that give an impression of moving forward but in essence, don’t make a difference whatsoever. Unless people can move about with freedom within cities and between states, everything else is useless. Shops can be opened but you need people to sell and people to shop and people to stock shops as well. Therefore, resumption of public transportation and freedom to move about are absolute essentials for any lifting of lockdown. There is a need to establish procedures for crowd control and promulgate safety measures to be followed by the population. The government and the public both have to meet half-way and face the challenge. It is time to shift responsibility slowly from the government to the people with governments retaining regulatory control /law and order enforcement mechanisms that enable a quick return to normalcy.

Let people decide whether they wish to catch the virus or not. Stop freebies. If they do catch the virus, let them be liable for their own quarantine, testing and treatment except for economically weaker sections. The people who are at graver risk know what they are up against and consequently, should know what to do in their own self-interest. We have been successful in containing the spread to a fair degree and hotspot management must aggressively continue. Let us accept that there will be 3 to 5 % fatalities and prepare for such an eventuality across the country. That is what 40 days of lockdown was meant for in the first place. Yes, a graded lifting of lockdown is necessary but a public plan which displays an intent to revert to normalcy is more important. This is a just expectation from our political representatives.

Opening of a tailor shop, salon, restaurant or mall is not individually of essence. Every business and activity has to open up in some sequence. However, resumption of public transportation, freedom of public movement and shouldering of public responsibility by citizens are the three critical ingredients of an effective lockdown lift. Anything less will not be a satisfactory solution.

27 Apr 20

 

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