Social distancing seems to have become the most used English term of 2020. Starting from doctors to the Prime Minister to the local councillor everyone has been spouting this terminology. Needless to say, in view of the Covid–19 pandemic it is imperative to maintain social distancing from almost everybody but life has to go on. Industrial activities — namely assembly lines, manufacturing, conferences, expos, and various other labour-intensive processes have to continue in order to keep the economy going. Above all, a man has to make a living and for that commercial and professional activities have to go on. In this article we will take a look at this new normal of our society.
It had started as a health crisis but has now turned into a ‘black swan’ event for the global economy and society. Staring at an uncertain future of work, the lockdown has rendered the workforce, in particular the vulnerable informal workers, stranded and without any stable source of income.
The rate of infection of the Coronavirus is extremely high when people gather together in large groups. To address the risks, large gatherings of over 50 people have been discouraged, if not banned outright by business and government. This tactic has been given a name, social distancing.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis offers us an opportunity to deliberate upon both short- and long-term to ensure that a resilient economy emerges which respects labour as a critical factor of production.
According to estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 400 million informal workers are at a risk of falling into deeper poverty levels in India. Under such circumstances, how does India ensure that the drivers of its economy do not become collateral damage of a pandemic?
The sudden imposition of the lockdown and the lack of effort by the state for the safe and smooth travel of migrant workers from their workplaces to their homes. At the same time, there is a lack of basic necessities in their workplaces or where they are stranded. As most economic activities have come a standstill, the workers are forced to be contained in an economic and emotional discomfort.
Additionally, the already vulnerable workers are also victims of information asymmetry. The Bandra railway station fracas in Mumbai in mid-April is a testimony to this.
As far as the industrial scenario is concerned, imminent economic losses are instigating enterprises, large and small alike, to rework their business and work structure. This leaves the workers in an abyss of uncertainty regarding the future of their work. Further, the industry oriented COVID-19-induced leniency in labour laws, that have been introduced in several states including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab are likely to make working conditions harsher, lay-offs easier and monitoring less stringent.
This raises a pertinent question. How do we rapidly reinstate the informal workforce in a post-COVID-19 scenario and at the same time ensure sustainable economic well-being for them in order to build their resilience?
In order to handle the current situation, a multi-pronged solution can be thought of with immediate, short-term and long-term impact. In this regard, along with the ongoing structural interventions, immediate relief measures which are being provided by the state, such as direct cash transfers and food supplies must be effectively and efficiently distributed to ensure maximum coverage and optimum effect. The focus has to be on containing the public health crisis while minimising the damage that it has caused to the economic fabric of the country.
The initial hurdle will come in ensuring that factory and other labour-intensive operations seamlessly implement social distancing norms. As an immediate measure, a strategy needs to be carefully planned for the institutionalisation of public health and other safety protocols before industrial operations resume.
In view of this, the state, in consultation with experts and union representatives, can prepare the number of workers per unit area of factory floor required for safe operations at a given capacity, across different manufacturing sectors. Such work space mapping can help the state assess the optimal requirement of workers in various industries in the times of social distancing and health standards. The authority responsible for preparing such a database can be the respective state’s industries and labour department, and its decentralised machinery in different districts and zones.
Today we are living in a wired world that makes online interactions as easy as a stroll down the park. As a result, many of us work online thus allowing commerce to continue even when access to the physical workplace is limited. However, most of us—working online or not—are still tethered to a common, physical workplace, at least we were until COVID-19 took over. Now we’re sitting at home and telecommuting. Once the threats posed by the virus passes, hopefully, we’ll go back to business as usual. Perhaps this current episode of social distancing will just be a memory.
Let’s visualise if social distancing becomes a way of life that stays with us for the foreseeable future? What happens if we just get so accustomed to social distancing—employer and employee alike—that we just stay home after this all blows over? What then? Think about it. It could very well happen and the possible implications could be significant.
Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs released fresh guidelines for managing the COVID-19 pandemic. It also allowed certain private establishments to function, subject to adhering to strict guidelines like mandatory wearing of masks at workplaces, etc.
The following are the Standard Operating Procedures for Social Distancing in Offices, Workplace, Factories and Establishments issued by the ministry.
The measures have to be compulsorily implemented by all offices, factories and other establishments:
Any or all areas in the premises shall be disinfected completely applying user friendly disinfectant mediums:
In the case of employees coming from outside, special transportation facility has to be arranged without depending on the public transport system. These vehicles should be allowed to work only with 30-40 per cent passenger capacity.
All vehicles and machineries entering the premise should be sprayed mandatorily with disinfectant.
Thermal scanning has been made mandatory for everyone entering and exiting the work place.
Every worker has to be covered by medical insurance.
Hand wash and sanitisers preferably with touch-free mechanism must be available at all entry and exit points and common areas.
The authorities should see to it that sufficient quantities of all the items are available.
However, if we really look back with a different viewpoint, we’ll see that ‘Social Distancing’ has been in existence even before COVID-19 came along. Prior to the introduction of mass-produced private homes, people either lived in cities or in the rural countryside. Urban dwellers congregated in public spaces like beaches, party halls or neighbourhood parks. They ran into each other walking down the street. They ride-shared on mass transit.
One can even say that the advent of the automobile helped in creating social distancing further. More and more people started opted for riding in the isolation of the privately-owned automobile than on a crowded city bus or subway. The interstate highway system emerged to support millions of new cars on the road. These highways and the 30-year fixed mortgage gave birth to suburban living. Moreover, television reduced movie-going to a predominantly entertainment experience. Who needs to see a newsreel in a movie theatre when the news is getting piped into your television set every moment of the day?
Any man or woman who could cough up a relatively small down payment to buy one the suburban house became their mansion. The next thing you know the house becomes the social centre: barbecues, cocktail parties, cricket matches on Sunday and legions of teenagers wreaking havoc at alcohol-fuelled backyard pool-parties while their parents are out of town.
Eventually, the introduction of video streaming (neé cable-based HBO) big-screen TVs, and movies-on-demand made the family entertainment centre a permanent fixture in residential house design. Finally, along comes high-speed internet and dad’s den gets replaced by dad’s home office and mom’s home office.
But we still had to go to the store to get stuff. Hence the rise of the shopping mall as a common ground in which to socialise. And, we still had to go to work to pay for it all … for a while, anyway, until Amazon or Flipkart came along and brought social distancing to the shopping experience and telecommuting applications such as Slack, Zoom and a plethora of other mobile apps make working from home a feasible way to conduct business. The only catch is that employers needed to get on board with telecommuting. A few employers did while many didn’t until COVID-19 started proving to be a killer. Now, almost all of them are on board – employers as well as employees.
Article by Arijit Nag
Arijit Nag is a freelance journalist who writes on various aspects of the economy and current affairs.
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