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  • Vinay Nair

Indian Economy may Survive the Coronavirus Recession, eventually

As the coronavirus contagion stealthily snakes into the hearts of societies and economies on a global scale, leaders and policymakers are faced with a herculean task. They have to design policies that contain the spread and equip their economies to deal with the aftermath. As for the general population, they have to bravely navigate the uncertainties of this unprecedented situation and deal with all the practical challenges that come with it.


But, while the world descends into a state of chaotic confusion, is there a possibility that India might turn out to be an unlikely exception? The central and state governments have already moved to devise an appropriate emergency response to the spread of the corona threat, and the country has been placed under a three-week lockdown. However, as the numbers rise and panic ensues, it may be reassuring to remind ourselves of the possibility that India might emerge relatively unscathed from this global pandemic. Even though this doesn't mean that India should swathe itself in a self-satisfied aura of complacence, it may be helpful to allay the anxieties and alleviate the panic to a certain extent.


There are several reasons why I believe that India might be able to recover from the crisis more readily than some of its hard-hit Western counterparts. One of the most important aspects to note in this regard is the absence of severe cases of Covid-19 so far. Compared to victims in Italy, UK and US and some more European countries, Indians have largely experienced milder forms of the disease till now. By and large, the more severe symptoms of respiratory trouble and organ failure have been relatively rare in the Indian context. In fact, a small-study carried out by a leading Indian publication has revealed that nearly 80% of the people who succumbed to Covid-19 had pre existing comorbidities. This essentially means that they had underlying health conditions that rendered their bodies incapable of fighting off the virus. The world over, the general consensus has been that the coronavirus infects and kills the aged population more easily. India's current statistics tend to confirm this pattern as well, with a majority of the deaths happening to people in the age group of 60 to 69 years. However, looking at this statistic alone may also be quite misleading, because it does not account for the role of co-morbidities in these patients. This point can be elucidated by looking at the deaths of two younger victims, a 38-year old in Bihar and a 34-year old in Madhya Pradesh. Both these young people who succumbed to the disease had underlying health concerns that amplified their vulnerability to Covid-19. On the other hand, a 93 year old man and his 88 year old wife in Kerala managed to recover from the disease despite being old and at the highest risk of dying from the disease. What these facts tend to highlight is that the issue of inherent health conditions may be a factor that is as important, if not more, as exposure to the newfound viral strain.


Perhaps even more reassuring may be our country's history of fighting off viral infections. Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, who is expert in understanding the spread of viruses and the emergence of antigens, recently explained how the corona scare reminds him of India's tryst with the tika system. From times immemorial, Indians have been using small quantities of viral matter from smallpox victims to inoculate those who are yet to be infected. The reasoning behind this is that a limited exposure to the disease can jumpstart the body's T-cells to develop the capacity to fight off this new disease. Even though it is too early to suggest that the coronavirus may be tackled in a similar way, this aspect raises important questions about the relevance of viral dosage. Does being exposed to a large amount of viral matter make people more susceptible to severe disease? Scientists believe that may be the case, even though this hypothesis is yet to be confirmed by large scale laboratory studies. In any case, the proactive way in which India has fought off the deadly duo of smallpox and polio may be a cause of sufficient relief for our people. India has tackled epidemics successfully before and it may just be able to pull it off again. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation has already suggested that India may be on a firm footing because of its experience of dealing with outbreaks, and that is an advantage that our country can definitely leverage in this fight against the coronavirus.


Some limited laboratory studies in the US have suggested another aspect that might be a relevant factor in bolstering India's ability to ward off the coronavirus. Even though conclusive causation is yet to be found, a clear correlation has been identified between the incidence of severe Covid-19 cases and the rate of BCG vaccination in a country. Countries that have a high rate of BCG vaccination, typically administered to protect against tuberculosis, have seen less damaging versions of the corona scare. On the contrary, countries that have no clear national policy for large scale BCG vaccination, have fallen prey to the disease more readily. This is particularly true of countries such as the US, Italy and other European nations, which do not have a clear system of BCG vaccination at an early age. In all these regions, coronavirus has spread like wildfire, and the symptoms of Covid-19 have been harsher, overwhelming their healthcare systems and spelling doom for their economies. The situation of Iran presents an interesting case that may be highlighted in this regard. Iran is perhaps the only country that has experienced a high death toll from Covid-19 despite having a trend of BCG vaccination. However, what is important to note in this case, is that Iran's universal BCG vaccination policy was started only in 1984, which means that a majority of the country's aged population have not been vaccinated with BCG. This factor may be helpful in understanding the rapid rise in the number of cases in Iran and their struggle to contain the pandemic. In light of this, it probably would not be too wrong to hope that India's policy of universal BCG vaccination can come to our rescue and help us mitigate the impact of coronavirus on a domestic level.


In any case, the government's prompt response in dealing with the crisis has already ensured that India has put its best foot forward in terms of defeating coronavirus. The country moved much faster than many of the affected countries in the West and acted in terms of instituting travel bans long before the risks of entering into the community transmission stage began to show up. Even now, with a nationwide lockdown well underway, India has not clearly entered into Stage 3 of the pandemic like Italy or UK. The government's response has not necessarily pre-empted the crisis like many critics say it should have, but it has definitely been more robust than one could have expected. In addition to the fast response of the government, a number of other reasons for India's relatively lower vulnerability has been highlighted by immunologist Narinder Kumar Mehra, who currently holds the ICMR Dr. C.G Pandit National Chair at All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Firstly, India's humid conditions and the exposure of the majority of people to a wide range of microbes may have equipped Indians with a broad based immunity system. Large sections of the Indian populace routinely live in conditions that are squalid and unhygienic. While that is a negative aspect of our vast population that has to be accounted for in time, this issue has equipped the T-cells of many Indians with broad based protection against microorganisms and diseases caused by them. Even though more studies are needed to prove a connection, there is reason to believe that this genetic predisposition may help us deal with coronavirus more effectively than Caucasians. Furthermore, the HLA genes in Indians also demonstrate a great deal of variety. Besides the T cells which jump into action when a foreign element actually enters the body, human beings also have the human leukocyte antigen systems or HLAs. These are the built in immune response genes we have, in order to aid our fight against diseases. Indians have been found to have a higher diversity of HLA genes compared to Caucasians, and since some genes are better at warding off the threat of the novel coronavirus at others, this variety places India at a safer position than the European countries.


The expert immunologist has also shed light on the role of epigenetic factors in safeguarding Indians from the disease. The immediate environment of Indians, and regular consumption of spices that are traditionally associated with improved immunity can play a role in making Indians better at dealing with disease. Compared to the Western populace, where their cultural preferences for food are centred around items that heighten inflammation in the body, Indians have long been exposed to healthier dietary options in their familiar setting.


In light of all these facts, I can safely hope that India may not have as tough a time as Italy or the UK in dealing with this pandemic. However, all these explanations relate to India's situation with regard to public health systems. 

What about the economy? 

What does the threat of coronavirus bode for the economy that was already undergoing a slump before the virus raised its ugly head? Here, too, I believe, India might enjoy a natural advantage. The pandemic has affected the GDPs of some of the largest economies in the world, with both the US and China being hit hard by this outbreak. As the largest global economies quake in their boots, India may have an edge over them. The corona scare has affected supply chains around the world. This fact is bound to affect the economic activities of China, which relies heavily on exports, and the US, which depends a lot on imports. India, on the other hand, despite the risk of reduced exports, is capable of sustaining itself. Further, as economies around the globe face a decline and take on an uphill battle against the recession that has already crept in, India might get a bit of a breather to recover itself. With this bit of relief, India might just be able to strengthen itself economically by the time the Western countries and China have had the time to pick up the pieces again. In fact, the Prime Minister's call for a staggered lifting of the lockdown makes sense in this regard as well. Considering the low to moderate density of cases in India, it may be a good idea to lift the lockdown in certain parts of the country based on the health status of these areas and gradually revive economic activity. The eventual resumption in economic development can then be slowly spread to the rest of the country as well. In this way, India's economy might have a better chance of recovering than most of the other countries that have been affected by the coronavirus. It is indeed heartening to look upon these facts and reassure ourselves of India's ability to deal with this disease. However, at the same time, it is now more important than ever, to stress on the importance of statesmanship and policymaking. How well India recovers and how speedily the lockdown is removed will depend on India's ability to isolate and distance its people. The governments will have to strengthen the implementation process further and develop solutions to ease the economic woes that will surely follow. With the government's robust actions, and the people's enthusiastic cooperation, India might just be able to position itself as an unlikely success story in these times of crisis.

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