We must make the movement from fear to faith, says Siegwerk’s Ashish Pradhan

Ashish Pradhan, president, Siegwerk India and Greater China, pens his perspective about the challenges caused by the Covid-19 outbreak and the possible way out

25 Apr 2020 | By WhatPackaging? Team

Pradhan: The government must change from invoking fear to inspiring confidence

We are all slaves to the Law of Inertia. We expect our current situation to last forever – positive or negative. Also, we believe that when things are going bad, they will get worse and vice versa. We continue in this state till something changes. I believe, in India, we are coming to a point where something will change – the social unease, fuelled by economic and psychological considerations, will reach a tipping point and we would have to consider the prospect of a lockdown lift-off seriously. Logically, this is then the point in time when we must reflect on how this would unfold.

There are two perspectives to consider – health and economy. These cannot be considered as mutually exclusive as one impacts the other and vice versa. In my view, the lockdown should have had a considerable impact on the Covid-19 “curve” and in, all likelihood, the curve should have flattened. This means that the chain of infections would have been broken and increase in the number of new cases would stop following the exponential function. This would be a tremendous achievement – not only because India has a large population but the population density in some areas is so high that social distancing becomes an oxymoron.

There would be new cases – only that the rate of increase in the number of new cases would reduce. There is then a strong case for continued preventive health measures to be implemented – hand hygiene, social distancing as much as possible, high degree of sanitisation to name a few. This would gladly be followed by most people who would think this to be a small price to pay for regaining their freedom of mobility. Those who aren’t complying will soon have to mend their ways under the sheer pressure of co-workers and co-passengers. This would have an added beneficial impact on the occurrence of other contagious diseases. So Covid-19 would have changed our health habits in a way that is overall beneficial to human health. The impact of the current crisis is so high, widespread and prolonged that these newly formed health habits are likely to last.

A lot has been written already about the new normal – how consumer habits would change, how several industries would have to reinvent themselves, shift their paradigms, some businesses would flourish while some would flounder. However, before we reach the stage where we start feeling the impact of these changes, there would be the big challenge of restarting the economic engine of India. This challenge would come in the form of liquidity crunch, logistics and supply chain smoothening and labour availability. Jump starting the economy in terms of liquidity and ensuring quick and efficient ramp up of logistics is in the realm of policy making which we must trust our government to be competent to address. It is the labour situation that is going to require careful handling as this one deals with people and dealing with people is always complicated.

Most of us have seen images on news channels showing hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers trying to flee their place of work – mainly but, not only, metros – to try and desperately reach the one safe place they know – their home. One reads heart wrenching stories about people setting off for their far-flung villages on foot willing to traverse hundreds of kilometres with nothing much in their stomachs and pockets. Why are these people wanting to get back to their homes in villages leaving behind their adopted homes and occupations that fed them?

I think there are two main reasons.

Most of this workforce gets paid on a daily or weekly basis. If work stops – as is the case now – there is no pay and the rupee doesn’t stretch as much in Mumbai as in Gorakhpur. The prospect of utter starvation and survival forced these people to take this extreme measure to strike out in the direction of their homeplace. This could be a plausible reason. Various State governments obviously thought so and promptly set up camps where they provided free food and shelter for these distressed souls. However, an eye-opening picture emerged when the PM announced an extension of the lockdown. Thousands of migrant labourers again aggregated at Mumbai’s Bandra terminus and demanded that they be provided transportation home. They refused to stay in the shelters that the Maharashtra Government had provided – “We do not want your free food; we want to go home” was the common refrain heard in the melee. There is, obviously, another motivation for people wanting to move homeward.

When does one want to go home desperately? When does one remember one’s home fervently and thrashes about like a wild animal in order to reach this safe place? Whenever any animal – as finally man is one – senses a serious threat there is a response of flight or fight and the response of flight takes us homeward. This large population of migrant labourers were experiencing fear – fear of catching an infection of Covid-19. This is the same fear that is now gripping nearly every citizen of this country. And this is only natural that he has been now asked to be fearful and conditioned to be scared. The messaging around the lockdown has been centred around evoking fear in people related to the virus. This messaging was, in my opinion, done in order to ensure compliance of lockdown regulations. This messaging has been extremely effective as can be seen by the largely effective compliance of the measures by all citizens. Of course, there are some instances where people have been less than careful and diligent, but then, India has always been a messy democracy and we celebrate this.

When we start lifting the lockdown restrictions, we need our workforce to return to work. The messaging around the dangerous nature of Covid-19 has been so effective that we should expect a certain reluctance of workers and employees returning to their workplaces. This is not only related to factories but also farms and offices. We are already experiencing this where factories that are allowed to run as they are a part of the essential goods supply chain have been forces to limit their output due to lack of manpower. Further, there have been instances of residents stopping the operations of factories that had official permission to operate. This points to a by now deep-rooted anxiety of getting infected and this would, in my opinion, be a major obstacle to overcome before we can get our farms and industry to start humming. On top is also the directive from the government, that full wages need to be paid to all labour if they cannot – or do not – want to report to work in this period of crisis. It is unfortunate but true that “A Government can force people to stay at home but can’t force people to come to work”.

What could be a way out? I truly believe that the narrative from the government must change from invoking fear to inspiring confidence. Confidence in our health infrastructure to be able to manage the epidemic, confidence in our ability to ensure preventive measures and their effective implementation, confidence that the administration is capable of managing any crisis, confidence that the survival rate in case of infection is over 96%, confidence that as a human race we shall overcome and prevail as we have done in so many crises of the past. Each one of us now knows that we are facing an insidious adversary who is invisible and potentially deadly. So was the Spanish flu. So was SARS. So was Ebola and Zika. We, as a human race, defeated all – in some cases more causalities than the others, in some cases it took more time than with the others – but, in the end, we prevailed. We must ignite the fire of belief in us and face this adversary firmly armed with weapons of better hygiene, social distancing, protective equipment, drugs that are at least partially successful as treatment – knowing that some of us may fall in this battle but we have faith that we shall overcome. We cannot cower in fear under our beds forever hoping the menace disappears – which it never will completely. We must make the movement from fear to faith!