Opportunities India should leverage to make it a global post-Covid model economy
What’s next for India? This is a looming question gripping the country — but we have reason to believe there’s light aplenty at the end of this tunnel. Every sector will have to reinvent itself to survive in a post-Covid-19 world order. Countries, too, must reimagine their contribution to a world that’s likely to be radically different from the one we’ve known thus far.
India must view this crisis as an exercise in building institutional and governance capacity — in particular, by leveraging five opportunities that can position it as a model to emulate in post-Covid-19 recovery and growth.
1.Healthcare: In facing the kind of overwhelming pressure that the virus threatens to unleash, India’s healthcare system has transformed exponentially in a narrow timeframe. Public health departments and healthcare staff have built capacity and efficacy almost overnight, something that will accrue benefits for us long after the current threat has subsided. Our public communications and disaster preparedness functions have matured tremendously just by virtue of having to tackle such an unprecedented crisis.
India may well be the world’s factory for a coronavirus vaccine. The Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune, one of the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, has partnered with Oxford University’s vaccine development initiative. If trials are successful, Serum looks set to produce millions of doses by year-end. Going forward, India must overhaul its healthcare sector by investing in indigenous manufacturing capabilities, enhancing capacities of public hospitals, and making the country a leader in R&D and innovation.
2. Sanitation and public hygiene: The post-lockdown fight against the virus hinges on the efficacy of the healthcare system in isolating, testing and treating cases, and discipline in maintaining sanitation and hygiene practices. We’re hoping that the virus will necessitate behavioural change at scale. Masks are already being accepted as a ubiquitous accessory in public places.
However, infrastructural and systemic inadequacies remain. In slums, millions live in unsanitary conditions without access to water, soap and toilets. Here is the real opportunity for impact. Those with privilege realise that their ability to defend themselves against Covid-19 is not determined by their own hygiene practices. Rather, it’s contingent on every individual having access to, and maintaining, a minimum basic standard of hygiene. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. As those who have access put pressure on governments to invest in public health and universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and those who lack access demand more resources, we hope there is a transformation in political priorities.
The Swachh Bharat initiative should take centre-stage in our public health agenda. Its scope should be expanded beyond toilets to include universal access to clean water and soap. The programme should invest in a large-scale, multi-channel campaign that leverages the network of public health centres (PHCs), accredited social health activists (ASHA) and anganwadi workers to educate all Indians about hygiene practices. Sanitation and hygiene must become core political and electoral issues.
3. Intra-governmental collaboration: In responding to this crisis, central and state leadership have come together in an encouraging display of intra-governmental and interparty coordination. However, the migrant crisis is testament to the fact that there is ample room for improvement.
What we must take forward is this spirit of collaboration between leaders of diverse ideologies sitting across the table to work for the Indian people. Equally paramount is stronger coordination, cooperation and knowledge-sharing between states and within states to strengthen our federal structure and ensure decentralised governance.
4. Reducing dependence on animal products: Climate change activists have long advocated for plant-based diets to minimise the damage caused by environmentally exploitative industries fuelling a meat-based diet. Now’s a good time to start. Every epidemic that has threatened humans has largely been zoonotic — Covid-19, HIV, Sars, Mers, Nipah, Ebola, swine flu.… The future of pandemics is contingent on our relationship with animals. However, the very niche market for veganism in India is not yet viable for mass adoption.
The other challenge is the massive economic cost — millions of people are employed in cattle, dairy and fisheries industries. The switch would be akin to moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Nevertheless, with a 30% vegetarian population, India can lead the way. We can start by making the process easier for those who want to reduce dependence on animal products. At the very least, we must make every effort to end animal abuse.
5. Capitalising on global supply chain diversification: Evolving trends of de-globalisation and protectionism will find their peak in the Covid-19 aftermath. As countries reduce their dependence on China, they will look to diversify into other Asean markets. India must rise to the occasion.
In the US-China trade war, Vietnam absorbed the flight of manufacturers and investors that wanted to diversify from China as tariffs escalated. The ever-intensifying trade war makes production in China costly, prompting several businesses, including Samsung, Apple and Nintendo, to relocate part of their manufacturing to Vietnam. The first half of 2019 saw Vietnam’s trade surplus with the US surge 39% to $25.3 billion. Bolstered by a jump in manufacturing, demand and exports, Vietnam’s economy was expected to grow by 7% this year before the virus hit.
Countries able to take advantage of post-Covid economic shifts will emerge as world powers in the next two decades. India needs to make sure it has every weapon in its arsenal to capitalise on the inevitable shift in supply chains — whether that’s boosting manufacturing, services or ease of doing business. We’re already armed with our demographic dividend, massive entrepreneurial base and technological capabilities. Most importantly, unlike China and Vietnam that have single-party rule, we are a democratic nation following a policy of multi-alignment, making us a trusted partner globally for economic and strategic collaborations.
Historically, every global crisis has spawned era-defining innovation and irrevocable change in the existing global order, with nations at the helm that were able to capitalise early on emerging shifts. If India is able to take advantage of these five opportunities while the iron is hot, it could truly be its time to shine.