Residents queueing to be tested for Covid-19 at the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Photo: AFP/Indranil Mukherjee

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The strangest May Day in human history dawns and dies. No other May 1 dedicated to the worker had millions out of work in a global economy shut down by a virus.

But the road ahead could be stranger, a post-Covid-19 world where the abnormal becomes the new normal.

As governments face restlessness of home-weary people wanting to get “out,” as harassed presidents and prime ministers desperately seek a balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods, the safe solution is to take the way already shown.

One way shown during these lockdown days is how many millions can continue working from home. They should be allowed to do so, enabling others needing to go out to work in a pragmatic economy balancing Covid-19 gains with a return to normalcy.

Half the workforce being able to work from home reduces by 50% the overcrowding, traffic snarls, toxic pollution, and corporate operational costs. It continues the hygienic “social semi-distancing” to keep away the next pandemic.

“Home work” is not new. I remember it being lustily bandied about as a generational change when the world became more familiar with the terms “Internet” and “www.com” circa 1997. The Covid-19 lockdown only returned the old and dusty to a new shop window.

‘Home work’ economy

Early into the lockdown in March, telecommunication companies began offering special schemes to support people working from home. India’s state-owned BSNL announced a free Work@Home plan with faster broadband Internet connectivity to landline subscribers, including free 5 gigabytes of data daily. Jio and Vodafone doubled data for customers, while Airtel had a “platinum network” for working from home.

Residential Internet usage has surged according to Cloudflare, a San Francisco-based Internet-infrastructure firm serving clients and 26 million websites across 194 cities in 90 countries. Demand has soared on residential broadband networks for videoconferencing amid an unprecedented home-based workforce.

“This is the largest work-from-home experiment ever to be conducted in human history,” Cloudflare chief executive officer Matthew Prince told the journal TechRepublic. “And we’re going to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Prince and his US$1 billion Cloudflare only confirmed how the term “home work” took on a more significant dimension than to a generation of us in school three decades ago – when “homework” was simply a nuisance that reduced time for play.

By mid-March, Microsoft’s unified communications platform for the workplace called Teams reached 44 million daily users, a more than 40% increase from November 2019.

A new era of a “home work” global economy could see multinational corporations, private companies and employers continue to cut costs by having millions of their staff working from home as much as possible – long after the world gets rid of the Covid-19 demon.

Odd-even car rule – for people

Since 2016, New Delhi has had cars with license plates ending with odd and even numbers on roads on alternate days to reduce toxic air pollution. The Covid-19 threat needs more unusual solutions. Use the odd-even rule for people to restart their livelihood work while avoiding infection. The last digit of a person’s birthday, odd or even, could decide who can go out of home for work on alternate days.

A person with his or her birthday ending with 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9 goes out to work on Monday. People with a birthday ending with zero, 2, 4, 6 or 8 step out on Tuesday, while the Monday workforce stays home to do whatever can be done from home. And so on for the rest of the week.

If such an idea seems weird and impractical, so would have been the idea six months ago of 3 billion people confined home worldwide – with national economies frozen, entire airline fleets grounded, public transport restricted, roads empty and a masked populace in a home-bound life allowed to venture out only for groceries.

Cathay Pacific planes sit idle on the tarmac of Hong Kong’s airport. Photo: Facebook

India has benefited from the world’s strictest lockdown, with Mumbai, as the worst-affected city in the country, having the most restrictive Covid-19 confinement.

Make no mistake, avoiding social distancing is no way to revive the global economy. #Covidiots abound – protesting, babbling their misguided ideas of “personal freedom.” No freedom is absolute. My freedom does not give me the right to drive on the wrong side of the road or to infect others with the SARS-Cov-2 virus that can live within me without showing symptoms for days.

Also read: India clamors to lift world’s biggest lockdown

But it is hard to wake up a fellow pretending to be asleep, and harder to get some folks to face Covid-19 facts because those facts are inconvenient to their lifestyle. And one of those facts is that India’s financial capital Mumbai, for whatever reasons, is not sharing the fate of New York, the US financial capital, which reportedly saw mass graves in recent horrific weeks.

Proactive police risking their lives (Mumbai police have died of the disease) to get people to stay home have so far helped India limit the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 to about 1,100 as of May 1, in contrast to the US, which has reported more than 63,000 fatalities – but the pandemic has produced strange realities.

This week, Senior Inspector Shriram Koregaonkar of the Santacruz Police Station in Mumbai told the media that 433 offenses were registered “against those caught walking at Juhu beach.” Such police reports will make mighty peculiar reading in the year 3020.

Mumbai Police lodged 94 official complaints (first information reports, or FIRs) on Monday, booked 143, arrested 74 for violating lockdown rules, and had 45 people facing criminal charges for not wearing masks. In bygone days, police booked folks for wearing masks – as they went about relieving fellow beings of their possessions.

Never-before strange times

In such bizarre times straight out of a Frank Kafka novel, the odd-even rule with birthdays would have half the workforce on duty with the other half waiting their turn the next day.

Wherever needed, a particular office or factory could adjust the odd-even workforce rule to ensure no understaffing or overstaffing. Offices could have odd-even birthdays leaning too much to one side, or might need particular staff for essential work irrespective of the odd-even rule.

These coronavirus times have pushed humanity into never-before situations. India is now into the second month of the lockdown, and people cannot stay confined at home for months.

A balanced way out has to be found to revive normal life even if a Covid-19 vaccine is not yet found. And the way out has to answer the question: How to reduce crowding?

With social distancing in focus, rules have to be made, changed, improvised and implemented.

Office hours may be extended to allow a workforce in two shifts to serve customers who can enter a bank or a shop five or 10 at a time.

The odd-even birthday rule might sound strange, but generally, I find my “strange” ideas about 10 years ahead of time.

Whether or not governments try the odd-even rule for people to dodge Covid-19 infection, I have no doubts about the “home work” economy reaping rich benefits by May Day of the year 2030.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the world’s increasing population and urban limitations will make the “home work” economy a needed re-invention.

Raja Murthy has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.

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