Measuring the effects of lockdowns in India and Nepal

May 5, 2020

On March 24, India’s government announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, closing schools and non-essential businesses, and suspending air and rail travel. That same day, Nepal, which borders India to the north, imposed its own lockdown in response to the pandemic.

Yale economists Rohini Pande, director of the Economic Growth Center, and Charity Troyer Moore, director for South Asia economics research at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, are gathering and analyzing data concerning the effects of lockdowns on India and Nepal’s poorest citizens. They are working with policymakers and development agencies to identify the most pressing issues and design policies that will help those most in need.

Pande, the Henry J. Heinz II Professor of Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Moore recently spoke to YaleNews about their work. Interview edited and condensed.

What sorts of issues are you collecting information about?

Moore: One specific area we’re interested in concerns tracking food prices in communities. We’re working with a government counterpart in an Indian state who is concerned about food shortages and whether they are increasing. Through our surveys, we aim to help them identify potential hot spots they need to address.

We’re working with another state government to focus on migrants who have returned to their villages from the urban areas where they work. These are very poor people. After the lockdowns were announced, many decided to immediately return to their villages. Millions of migrants have returned home from cities. We’re surveying a sample of migrants to understand their food security situation, whether they can access government benefits, and their experiences with stigma and discrimination. There is concern that returning migrants might be carrying the virus and spreading it, and there have been distressing reports of violence and discrimination. We’re going to share data on this with our policy collaborators.

How are you collecting data under these challenging conditions?

Moore: We normally collect data through in-person surveys, but we obviously can’t use that approach during the pandemic. Fortunately, we already had teams conducting phone surveys on other projects and were able to transition them from their call centers to working remotely. We’ve returned to samples of people we previously surveyed and began asking them about their experiences during lockdown. We’re also asking general COVID-related questions to understand people’s awareness of COVID. We’re interested in understanding the lockdown’s immediate impacts, particularly on people who rely on daily wages to survive.

Pande: We’re also exploring using online surveys. We’re realizing that, while we can successfully transition away from in-person surveys, we must think carefully about what the samples we collect under these unique conditions actually represent. This is a particularly important question because we focus a lot on issues involving women, and we’re finding that women often have less access to phones during the lockdown. In one sample of women that we’ve been tracking for a long time, we’ve seen a 15% increase in the likelihood that their husbands answer the phone since the lockdown began.

What are some broader questions that researchers need to explore concerning the pandemic’s impact on developing countries?

Pande: If we think about the broader research agenda, considering research happening in the Economic Growth Center (EGC) and across Yale, I think the work falls into three buckets. One concerns how COVID-19 is affecting the poor, particularly women and children. Orazio Attanasio, Costas Meghir and Fabrizio Zilibotti, all in the economics department and EGC, are exploring impacts for children. Next, is the question of whether developing countries should follow different policies than developed countries. Mushfiq Mobarak, professor of economics and director of the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale (Y-RISE), is addressing this question in his latest work in Bangladesh. The last piece involves how to design effective policies to continue supporting poor communities as countries start recovering from the pandemic. Kevin Donovan, an assistant professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, is doing work in this regard on cash transfers in Africa. Penny Goldberg in the economics department is doing important policy work.

I’m hoping that much of the data we’re collecting will inform this last question. We’re concerned about addressing the humanitarian crisis in the short run, but it’s clear that we’ll need to find the most effective ways to alleviate economic distress in the long run. Historically disadvantaged groups like women can very easily become last in line when it comes to returning to the job market once the immediate crisis eases.

What unique challenges do developing countries face in dealing with the pandemic?

Pande: The challenges of managing COVID-19 and imposing lockdown are very different in India, Nepal, and other developing countries than in wealthy nations. You’ll hear that opinion from any development economist.

As Charity mentioned, the poor are reliant on daily wages. They don’t have savings to make ends meet while unable to work. Making a living is a struggle under normal circumstances, much less during a lockdown in which people had to abandon their livelihoods in the cities and return to their villages.

Secondly, social distancing may not be possible in places where people live in crowded slums and single-room homes with large families. Policymakers might have to consider other options apart from strictly enforcing the quarantine.

Lastly, the health care systems are weaker than in developed countries, meaning that policymakers face a different set of challenges and decisions. I saw recently that about 80% of people on ventilators in New York City do not survive. Developing countries probably shouldn’t focus on amassing a large supply of ventilators, but rather consider other measures, such as oxygen monitoring and managing people’s symptoms, to help patients survive.

Moore: Additionally, developing countries have different demographics than wealthy ones. Populations tend to be younger, but poor nutrition compromises people’s immune systems. We don’t fully understand how the virus will affect these populations. Developing countries also have fewer overall health resources to address the pandemic, which can have unintended consequences. For example, when India’s central government imposed the lockdown, it also cancelled public pre-natal services in most states. That could have serious implications for infant and maternal mortality. We don’t understand the full consequences yet.

Have specific research questions arisen as you’ve gathered data?

Pande: Right now, we are more focused on providing our policy partners data they need to effectively address the crisis, rather than focusing on specific research programs. In the process, a set of questions that need answering has emerged. One that I’m personally very interested in is how to draw sound conclusions from the partial samples we’re collecting from the phone surveys. If you’re worried about food shortages and increases in poverty, but you can’t do the highly detailed surveys you typically perform, then what is the minimum amount of sampling you need or the minimal amount of triangulation across sources required to be confident in your data? We have lots of snapshots of conditions in India and Nepal, and we’ll need to think carefully about how they add up.

Moore: Perhaps I’m an eternal optimist, but I think this crisis could provide a moment of opportunity for women in these countries. We’re shifting equilibriums. When you consider history, these kinds of massive shocks to the system can cause movement in areas that are otherwise quite stable. We want to examine this possibility and speak to it in our research.

What have you personally found most challenging about performing this work amid a world-historic crisis? 

Pande: I’m not used to working at such a rapid pace. Economists in academic settings are used to taking their time to amass the best quality data and subject it to a rigorous analysis in order to reach solid conclusions. The present situation requires moving quickly. We have to turn around reports to our policy partners and be responsive to funding organizations that are adjusting their grant programs to meet the crisis.

Another challenge is trying to quickly identify policy priorities. In a situation like this, in which so many things are going badly, policymakers don’t have the time to respond to every issue. We have to help them prioritize the most important challenges.

Moore: After the initial shock of the situation subsided, I realized that there was so much we could do right now to be helpful and we needed to take the situation and run with it. That’s been an idea our teams can mobilize around. The challenge here is there is so much work to be done, and in such a short time. We’re trying to be part of the solution as best we can. That frame of mind is helping me as I think through the crisis.

Written by Mike Cummings for YaleNews.