The path to truth can be sometimes counterintuitive, therefore often missed or dismissed by those seeking answers to problems. This thought returns in the midst of Manipur’s fight against the COVID pandemic, and what are seemingly inadvertent flaws in the government’s response, precisely on account not being mindful of the fact that solutions to problems do not always follow what are believe to be common sensical approach. Perhaps this is also why Italian Communist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, was suspicious of the popular understanding of common sense, for according to him, this is not an inherent condition of nature but an interpretative conception of the laws governing natural phenomena, constructed through prolonged exposure to hegemonic ideas of dominant cultures and traditions. Hence what is common sense for orthodox Christians, Hindus, Muslims etc, can vary, and even radically so. Gramsci even suggested adoption of what he called “counter-hegemony” in the deconstruction of these existing hegemonies. But without going into these arguments, let us see where the Manipur government might have gone wrong and may still be going wrong, considering these weaknesses of common sense are not acknowledged or even noticed.
The standard operational procedure, SOP, prescribed by authoritative bodies such as the WHO and ICMR, in the fight against the spread of the COVID virus is well known now, and since there is no remedial medicine found yet, the underlying principle of their recommendation is to have people avoid crowding and physical contacts to the extent possible. The government’s duty therefore is to evolve mechanisms to facilitate and ensure this condition in the everyday routines of the people at large. The first of the governmental resort was the prolonged lockdown beginning March during which everybody was expected to stay home and avoid social interfaces. Much has already been written about this, and how in the case of Manipur this began much ahead of time, even when all those who may be carrying the virus were in quarantine, unnecessary fatiguing the population before the actual battle began. What should have been done was to have strict screening quarantine regime of those retuning from outside the state and who have come back with the virus, to be allowed to return home only when it was confirmed they tested negative of the virus. This way the rest of the society would have been left with a reserve of energy to fight on when the battle got tougher. Quite ironically, when the battle has become tougher now, the government is compelled to soften its strategies, when it should have been the other way around. As the scourges of the pandemic peaks, both at the national level and in Manipur, the government is in the process of unlocking in stages. The government is however putting calibrated restrictions on the market places, in the belief less shops and vending spaces open will automatically prevent crowds forming. This unfortunately is where the counterintuition question comes in to wreck the presumption.
At the very basic, there are two ways of reducing crowding. One is to restrict people coming out into public spaces, in particular market places. The more the number of people remaining home, quite obviously the less people there would be to crowd public spaces. The other is to enlarge the public spaces. The more the area of public spaces there is, the more the freedom there will be for all people to come out and yet not cause crowding. If crowding is what is to be avoided, the choices before the government is to make arrangement for either of the two options. The government has chosen the former option and as Manipur unlocks, there have been severe reduction in market spaces, as the number of shops and markets allowed to open on any given day remains restricted, and there is also mandatory closure of all shops on Sundays. Likewise, the number of public transport vehicles on the road too have been restricted, again with the presumption that there will be less people coming out if there are less transport means. One fact ignored here is, after seven months, there are too many people who just cannot remain indoors and survive. They have to come out and earn to make a living, and most do not have cold storage facilities at home so are compelled to come out to buy their provisions of perishable goods at short intervals, preferably daily. Everybody by now knows what the challenge is, but by necessity most are now compelled to come out of home.
This being the reality, the government must reconsider its strategy of restricting public spaces as the means to prevent crowding and instead work on the counterintuitive measure of increasing market places and putting more transport vehicles on the roads. In Imphal for instance, instead of shutting down any of the three Khwairambund Keithels, the resort should have been to open all of them, though only a third of the sellers allowed to vend in them so the prescribed SOP distance of one or two meters between each can be introduced. Then in addition, government should have constructed temporary sheds at the Polo Ground and other open grounds in the city, to accommodate those excluded from the Keithels and more, again ensuring maintaining the mandatory SOP is possible.
There is another side to the problem to be dealt with – buyers crowding. Again, two reasons can be considered as primary. One, small vending spaces, therefore related to the earlier proposition of expanding these spaces. Two, shortened time for shopping. If shopping time has been restricted, shoppers’ concentration will increase around the opening hours. If shops and markets are closed on some days, while these days may see not see many people in public spaces, shoppers will rush out with urgency on the days on which shops open, resulting in more likelihood of crowding. The resort therefore should have been for the shops and markets to be permitted to open longer hours and throughout the week. In fact, so long as the COVID crisis lasts, willing shopkeepers and vendors should be allowed to open even on Sundays, for there is nothing that says COVID is any more virulent on Sundays. If the shoppers know they can get their provisions anytime, they will be more relaxed and for their own convenience, tend to look for lean shopping hours rather than rush at first opportunity.
Again, when the COVID pandemic first started dawning on Manipur, the government had come up an innovative idea of setting up some sort of farm commodities stock exchange where government can buy perishable farm produces from the farmers at government fixed rates, and then resell them at a regulated pace through vendors in different markets. This was to be aimed at easing farmers rushing to the markets and panic selling. The idea seems to have been abandoned midway, but if it is feasible to set up such a system even now, it can contribute to keeping markets from getting crowding, and also remove farmers distress that their produces may go unsold and thus waste. We do wish the government will give these suggestions a serious thought, even if they may appear counterintuitive.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author