ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Untangling Policy Mishaps

How to Make Policies More Effective during a Pandemic

A number of economic and health policies adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic have been rendered partially or fully ineffective due to offsetting actions from private individuals, resulting in policy mishaps. This article demonstrates that these policy mishaps are the result of not one, but several types of policy conundrums entangled with one another, creating a complex policy challenge. It also provides a sketch of what a comprehensive policy package should look like.


During colonial rule, the British government had once wanted to reduce Delhi’s cobra population. Their chosen policy was to offer a reward for dead cobras. The citizens reacted to this policy by starting to breed cobras, killing them and then claiming rewards. Soon the government realised that the policy was not working as intended, and discontinued it. Losing the incentive, the citizens released all their newly-bred cobras into the wild. Hence, Delhi’s cobra population actually went up in the aftermath of the policy intervention. This story is the genesis of the term “cobra effect:” unintended consequences of policies that are well-intentioned but overlook private motives.1

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world, governments in various countries are adopting a range of novel health policies as well as economic policies, in order to mitigate this crisis. In a number of cases, however, the reaction of private individuals to these policies is rendering them partially or fully ineffective, resulting in a policy mishap—much like the cobra effect. In India, the case that has attracted the most attention is the migration-on-feet, the attempt by a very large number of migrant labourers to walk back from urban areas like Delhi to their villages that are thousands of kilometres away, in a midst of a general lockdown of the country. As we shall discuss later on, there have been other such policy mishaps as well.

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Updated On : 14th Feb, 2021
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