It’s been about two months since the start of the world’s largest coronavirus disease (Covid-19) lockdown – in India. For millions of migrant workers across the country, it has resulted in a humanitarian crisis. But it has also been devastating for the non-migrant and urban poor, many of whom have lost their incomes.

The economic costs of the lockdown have been enormous, but there may have been one benefit: People did their best to comply with public health directives. They wore masks, washed their hands regularly, and followed basic social distancing guidelines. These behaviours can slow the spread of the coronavirus, ultimately saving lives. As the Indian economy gradually reopens, we cannot afford these behavioural gains to be lost, even as the novelty of the pandemic fades.

At the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in India (Epic India), we have studied the impacts of the lockdown for a representative sample of mostly poor, non-migrant workers in Delhi. Our study documents large declines in employment and income. Over the first seven weeks of the lockdown, weekly income dropped by nearly 60%, on average. Daily wage workers were hit hardest first, followed by salaried workers – perhaps as it became clear that the lockdown will be extended. The situation worsened over time. By early-May, nine out of 10 survey respondents reported that their weekly income has fallen to zero.

The reduction in employment and earnings is no surprise. What truly stands out in our data, however, is the widespread compliance with public health directives. Compared to pre-coronavirus levels, mask usage increased from 20%, at the height of the most recent air pollution crisis, to 90%; time spent indoors increased from 44% to 95%, and regular hand-washing became nearly universal. We need to view these types of behaviours, important in limiting the spread of the virus, as some of the hard-fought gains of this long and costly lockdown….