Bengaluru, April 30, 2020: India could see more deaths due to hunger than from the pandemic if it continues to remain in lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19, according to Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy. The country must accept the coronavirus as the new normal, and facilitate the return-to-work of able-bodied while protecting the most vulnerable, Murthy said.
“What is important for us to understand is that India cannot continue in this situation for too long. Because at some point of time, deaths due to hunger will far outweigh deaths due to coronavirus,” he told business leaders at a webinar on Wednesday.
India’s mortality rate of 0.25-0.5% of total positive cases was very low compared with the developed countries, he said.
So far, India has been able to flatten the curve — or reduce the spread of the virus — in most places due to the lockdown, which has been extended till May 3. More than 31,000 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in India so far, of which 1,008 have died since the first reported infection on January 30.
Murthy said around 190 million Indians are employed either in the informal (unorganised) sector or are self-employed, and a significant part of this population is likely to have lost its livelihood due to the lockdown. More will lose their livelihoods “if this continues for long”.
‘Tax Collections will be Impacted’
Murthy said most businesses have lost 15-20% of their revenues, and this would have a bearing on the government’s tax and GST collections.
The International Monetary Fund has estimated India’s GDP growth to slow down to 1.9% this year, from 4.5% last year, he said.
Murthy said India’s testing rates are still low, and while there are global efforts to develop a vaccine against the virus, it is still not clear whether it will be adaptable for Indian genes. “We Indians must accept that coronavirus is the new normal,” he said, while urging Indian entrepreneurs to step up innovation to halt the virulent spread of the pandemic.
He expressed surprise that no Indian entrepreneur has so far come out with a robust testing mechanism to match the finger-prick test devised by the Chinese that helped raise testing rates in that country. “If such a test was developed and sold at a reasonable price, it will help. I have not seen an Indian entrepreneur come out with something like this,” he said.
LOWER MORTALITY RATE
While younger people may carry the virus and be asymptomatic, Murthy pointed to the lower mortality rate in India being due to genetic conditions of Indians, the warm weather or widespread BCG vaccination, while calling for research to identify this phenomenon.
Elders and those with health issues should be made to follow social distancing and wear protective clothing to ensure safety. “In such a complex situation, the best thing we should do is to assume the new normal. Live with the coronavirus, we should start what we were doing before corona,” Murthy said. “We should protect the most vulnerable”.
Murthy, among the founders of the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) called on the software lobby group to conduct a controlled experiment through its members to get people to office by following safety protocols and share the data with the government.
“Instead of one shift, make it three shifts, so that people are dispersed and follow social distancing,” he said.
Murthy called for a data-driven approach to the experiment, using mathematical modelling and statistical analysis, and providing inputs to the government so it can take decisions based on data and “not emotions”.
Nasscom said it is already adopting a data-driven strategy in its efforts to get more people back to office.
“We have recommended staggered opening of offices with 10-15% people. Not all of them come at the same time. Practice social distancing and monitor how it works. Gradually keep increasing the numbers (in office). We are taking a data-driven approach,” said Sangeeta Gupta, chief strategy officer at Nasscom. “What we would want the government to do is work out a return-to-office strategy. It is beneficial for the industry and the country.”
Highlighting that there are opportunities for the Indian IT sector due to the pandemic, Murthy said companies globally would look to cut costs and invest in technology, and domestic companies should work hard to deliver services and grow their business.