Breaking the Rules

The pandemic forced the planet into a once-in-a-lifetime natural experiment. The unprecedented lull in human activity gave scientists an opportunity to carry out experiments that would have otherwise been impossible to do. It also, almost by accident, gave policy makers the ability to evaluate whether regulations that had to be relaxed during this crisis really need to be re-imposed when things get back to normal. The lessons learned from this experience in empirical policy-making should not go to waste.

This is a link enhanced version of the article that was first published in The Mint. You can read the original article here.

Marine researchers, have, for a while now, been studying the effects of noise on sea life. We know that the sound of outboard motors can have an effect on the feeding habits of fish, and, in some cases, even shift undersea migratory patterns. Whales that rapidly ascend in the water to flee the sound of sonar pulses have been known to develop embolisms. The sonorous thrum of heavy container vessels is now so pervasive that researchers fear entire species of sea creatures have been forced into silence.

Science in Lockdown

The global shutdown caused by the covid pandemic resulted in a drastic reduction in marine traffic. For many aquatic species, this was the first time in nearly half a century that their environs were devoid of anthropogenic sound. For scientists, it was an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate just how badly sound has affected marine life. Early results from these studies seem to indicate that noise levels more than halved at various locations around the world, allowing large sea creatures to occupy more of the ocean that they may otherwise have felt capable of doing. Whales were observed to be engaging in far more complex vocalisation—using low-frequency sounds—than previously observed now that their calls were not being drowned out by ships.

As horrific as the effects of the pandemic have been on human life, it has presented scientists with the perfect natural experiment. From marine biologists to conservationists, environmental scientists to seismologists, researchers around the world have seized the opportunity to analyse a world without human activity, and they are coming up with remarkable findings. Pollution scientists recorded a marked reduction in atmospheric pollution, particularly in large metropolitan cities like Mumbai (40% reduction in particulate matter) and New Delhi (70% fall in NO2 levels) during city-wide lockdowns, allowing them to accurately measure the impact of human activity on the environment. Seismologists were able to use the lack of human noise to establish baseline noise levels for the natural world, allowing them to better detect low-magnitude events like small earthquakes and landslides. Wildlife researchers noticed that a number of species that were thought to be nocturnal were in fact diurnal, venturing out during the course of the day in the absence of human activity.

Pandemic Relaxations

As much as scientists have been able to use covid as a natural experiment, the pandemic has also given us an unexpected opportunity to carry out some interesting regulatory experiments. Mandatory lockdowns forced national and municipal governments to relax various restrictions that had been in place for decades— often for no better reason than legislative inertia. Now that we have had a year to evaluate whether any harm resulted from not having those curbs in place, regulators can question whether these archaic rules need to be re-imposed at all.

In more than 30 states of the US, regulations that prevented restaurants from serving cocktails-to-go were relaxed during the pandemic, allowing customers to pick up cocktails along with takeaway orders and food delivery businesses to deliver alcoholic beverages along with food orders. These restrictions have been around since Prohibition and were intended to restrict the unauthorised consumption of alcohol. Based on the pandemic experience, regulators in many states are considering making these relaxations permanent, as the commercial benefits of permitting them outweighs the harms that might result.

Similarly, regulations restricting tele-medicine in the US had to be relaxed during the lockdown to allow patients to consult doctors they could not physically meet. Many of these relaxations are likely to be made permanent, given that the evidence of the past year has, if anything, demonstrated how much more efficient these sorts of consultations can be when facilitated by modern technology.

In India, our nationwide lockdown forced business process outsourcing (BPO) businesses to transition from offering services from office to having employees work from home. What was previously only permitted on the basis of a specific exemption under other service provider (OSP) regulations became, almost overnight, the primary way in which BPO operations were carried out. To its credit, the telecom regulator immediately relaxed the work- from-home restrictions, enabling BPO units to keep up their back-office operations and support for customers around the globe.

After six months of letting BPO employees work from home, it was evident to all that the earlier misgivings of the regulator were unfounded. Work-from-home was not going to result in a widespread toll bypass, as was once feared. To the contrary, it gave BPO companies a chance to use their workforce more efficiently and consider extending their operations into the country’s Tier II and Tier III towns. In November 2020, the Indian government announced sweeping reforms of its OSP regulations, giving its remote-work liberalisation a stamp of permanence. A couple of weeks ago, the norms were liberalised even further.

Empirical Policymaking

I have, for a while now, been arguing in favour of empirical policymaking. In a previous article I had argued in favour of experimenting with regulatory proposals under controlled circumstances:

One of the tools called for to implement this new form of governance is the regulatory sandbox, which allows for careful experimentation by relaxing regulations in specific, highly controlled environments to assess the impact of the introduction of new technologies under a relaxed or altered regulatory environment. India has already started experimenting with these new methods of regulatory evaluation by announcing the creation of regulatory sandboxes across all four financial regulators. There is scope for using this tool more widely across all areas of technology regulation.

I believe that deploying regulatory sandboxes—environments within which regulations can be relaxed for short periods of time and under limited circumstances—will allow us to be more thoughtful in policy formulation.

The pandemic forced us to frame regulations in a sandbox. Should we not think of making this practice permanent?