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Kerala’s Covid relaxations will hurt, not help, its economy

Even though it has managed to keep Covid-19 mortality low (on the back of its strong its public-health set-up), there have been enough warnings of a third wave that should have elicited a more cautious approach.

It is rather unfortunate the Supreme Court has had to remind states on containing Covid-19 risks. On Monday, the apex court asked the Kerala government to explain—by the very same evening—why it decided to relax Covid-19 restrictions in the state over July 18-20, in the run up to Eid-ul-Adha. While the state had told the court that only some commercial establishments had been allowed to open in a limited manner—from 7 am to 8 pm in category A (test positivity rate, of TPR, of upto 6%), B (TPR 6-12%), and C (TPR 12-18%) areas—there have been media reports of breach of Covid-19 appropriate behaviour.

It is hard to imagine why the Kerala government should have allowed such risky relaxation given the state’s TPR has stubbornly stayed above 10%—which necessitates ICMR-advised restrictions—for over a month now. The state accounts for over 30% of the current active cases in the country. Even though it has managed to keep Covid-19 mortality low (on the back of its strong its public-health set-up), there have been enough warnings of a third wave that should have elicited a more cautious approach.

If correct, it is shocking that the state government took the decision not on the basis of scientific advise/consultation with health authorities, but on the basis of an interaction between the chief minister and trader-associations. Indeed, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) had warned the state that it would challenge the decision in court if wasn’t repealed.

The IMA had cited the example of Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh, which had cancelled the Kanwar Yatra—though Uttaranchal had done it suo motu, SC censure prompted the UP government’s hand. Kerala, at 34.2%, has a higher vaccination (at least one dose) cover than Uttar Pradesh’s 15%. But that, by no means, makes the decision to relax restrictions less poorly-thought-out.

This is not to understate the economic pain from continued restrictions—something that CM Pinarayi Vijayan spoke about while announcing the temporary relaxation. Businesses, especially MSMEs, have a taken a big hit because of Covid-19, but the fact is that a worse future awaits if there is another surge.

What is also needed is some degree of risk-sensitivity on the part of the masses. As per multiple news reports, the traders had threatened to open up and resume activities notwithstanding the curbs in force. Such kind of arm-twisting by lobby groups puts the larger community’s well-being at risk. The Union home ministry had written to states last week, urging them to strictly enforce Covid-19 appropriate behaviour, and even vest responsibility in government personnel for failure to implement this.

But, with action like that of Kerala’s or Uttar Pradesh’s (before it saw sense and cancelled the Kanwar Yatra), there is little scope of such measures being implemented. To the contrary, the government will be setting the example for the masses and pressure groups to simply dial down caution. All efforts needed to prevent a third wave must be made—more so if variants with even greater immune escape capability than Delta emerge. The Kerala government, which had earned international praise last year for its handling of the pandemic, should focus on containing Covid-19 to revive the economy rather than exacerbate the situation the state is already in.

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