Corona impact: Virus delivers double whammy to the voiceless

India rushed unprepared into a lockdown


March 26, 2020

/ By and / Mumbai

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Taxis lined up on the streets of Wadala, in central Mumbai  (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

Taxis lined up on the streets of Wadala, in central Mumbai  (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

Two days after the 21-day nationwide lockdown began the government has finally announced INR 1.7 trillion (USD 24 billion) relief package, amidst reports of thousands of migrant workers returning home on foot and fears of starvation. The enormity of the challenge before the government is looming large.

On any given day, Wadala in central Mumbai, is chaotic. The cacophony of cars honking away to glory, streets brimming with people, dozens of kids displaying their prowess at cricket and loud music blaring from radios, televisions and mobile telephones in various houses. However, since the dawn of March 25, Wadala has become eerily quiet and not just the main roads, but even the narrow by-lanes that criss-cross slums adjoining the expressway are devoid of any sign of life. Thousands of black and yellow cabs are arranged in near perfect queues on both sides of the road and the only occasional vehicle that was actually moving was the police van that was patrolling the streets and asking people to stay indoors.

People who stay in these areas of Wadala are mostly slum-dwellers who work on daily wages. With the city and the entire country in a  lockdown, these people and hundreds of millions like them have no source of income and are struggling to make their ends meet. With no food, no money these people are more scared that they might die of hunger before corona catches them.

“The biggest problem that we are facing right now is that we have no food to eat. Where are daily wagers like us going to go and who will take care of us and our families? Since we are not earning anything now, we have no food to eat. the government should at least take care of those people and see if they have any food to eat or not. At least they should make sure that we have some ration,” a visibly upset Subhrabi Khan a resident of a slum in Shantinagar, Wadala, tells Media India Group.

Millions of Indians like Subhrabi Khan are dependent on the government for survival during the lockdown

Millions of Indians like Subhrabi Khan are dependent on the government for survival during the lockdown

Khan has a son who was a daily wager but is out of work now. “My son is now sitting at home. I used to do thread work earlier but now even that has stopped. You can come and see my house. I stay in the slums. How am I supposed to get food for my family? My husband is also not there. I can show you many such houses where they haven’t eaten much since the lockdown started,” she adds.

With Modi’s decision, construction labourers, street vendors, auto and cab drivers, as well as several million workers from the unorganised sector have been impacted in a huge way. As per International Labour Organisation at least 90 pc of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector, working in roles like security guards, cleaners, rickshaw pullers, streets vendors, garbage collectors and domestic helps. The decision is bound to hit the poorest hard as they have almost no savings to fall back upon. The state governments are strictly observing the lockdown but have not clearly thought as to how these people are going to sustain themselves for another 20 days. Some states like Uttar Pradesh and Kerala have announced small amounts of monetary assistance to the poor for the next month whereas New Delhi has offered meals for the homeless at their night shelters.

“It’s good that the government has shutdown everything to stop coronavirus from spreading but at least give us something to eat. My son used to earn INR 200 per day but now even that has stopped. The police have asked us not to leave the house but how are we going to survive for so long. My appeal to the government is you put the state under lockdown for two months but at least give us something to eat,” pleads Khan.

Seeing the uncertainty of the lockdown the migrant workers, who make a large portion of the unorganised workforce, have started to flee to their native villages as they see no source of income in the cities. On Saturday, last week, the Mumbai-Howrah mail, one of the few last passenger trains to leave from Mumbai was filled with people and few were still struggling to get in the already packed train before Sunday’s voluntary curfew. This was a major blow to Modi’s containment strategy. And after Tuesday’s announcement there are many who are just willing to leave the cities now as they find it difficult to survive. As per the 2011 Census, India counted more than 45 million economic migrants who had moved for work, the large majority of them, men.

Lakshmi, a housemaid in Delhi, who also owns a small shop, says she doesn’t have any savings for the moment and doesn’t know how she is going to survive for 21 days now since the shop is shut.

Uma, an owner of a small beauty parlour in Tamil Nadu, says that since the corona scare her earning has been zero. Uma’s monthly earnings were INR 15,000 per month out of which she has to pay for rent and rations that comes around to INR 7,000. The little profit she makes is not enough for her to run the house and therefore he has to wait for her husband who works in Delhi to send her money.

“We are blessed that we have a home to stay and some savings to sustain ourselves for the next few days but what about those who are struggling to make ends meet and who don’t have basic facilities. I feel for the people in my village in Tamil Nadu who are daily wagers and get a salary of INR 100 per day. What is going to happen to them after the lockdown? There are people who stay in the slums, has the government really thought about them?”

Access to clean water is a luxury for slum dwellers in Mumbai, like this slum in Kurla, a neighbourhood in eastern Mumbai

Access to clean water is a luxury for slum dwellers in Mumbai, like this slum in Kurla, a neighbourhood in eastern Mumbai

Where is the water to wash hands?

Another big problem is that of proper sanitisation. A majority of India’s population doesn’t get adequate water and though the government has asked people to frequently wash their hands or use sanitisers, not many can afford either or have access to clean water. Around 160 million of India’s 1.35 billion people have access to clean water.

“Here we are crying for food, and the government wants us to keep on washing our hands. We can manage limited water in a day for bathing and cooking purpose, now where are we supposed to get the water for washing hands several times a day?” asks Khan who is a slum dweller. There are hundreds of slums in Mumbai where millions fight to get clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing. At a time when washing hands can be a question of life and death then the government cannot wash its hands from providing the luxury of using water liberally to the poorest section of society.

A broken healthcare system

For the poor, another real challenge thrown up by the pandemic is very poor access to healthcare and a medical infrastructure that is aimed at providing the best in world healthcare, but only to the handful of Indians who can afford them. For an overwhelming number of Indians, there is little besides the rickety infrastructure of public health, where hospitals are far too few, badly equipped and lack trained medical manpower as the brightest of the lot opt for much more lucrative careers overseas or in private hospitals in India.

In general, India has far fewer doctors and other medical professionals than the need of the country. A recent report by a United States-based healthcare thinktank said that India lacked 600,000 doctors and over two million nurses in order to take care of the 1.35 billion people of the country. Thus, in case the virus does spread in the community and to the poor, which is very likely looking at the way the propagation is on currently, it is likely to take a very heavy toll.

A mathematical model released by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) predicted that in the worst case scenario, the virus could infect over tens of millions of people, with over 10 million infections in New Delhi alone and over 4 million in Mumbai and half a million each in several other cities of the country. The virus could kill well over 30,000 persons, even though it would peak in barely 50 days.

In the more optimistic scenario, a flatter curve with a peak in 200 days, would infect about 1.5 million persons in Delhi and about half a million each in Mumbai and half a dozen other cities in the country. In both the scenarios, the poor would be the most impacted.

First, they would be challenged in getting a test done as became evident from the case of a person in Kolkata who was turned away from a testing centre as he had no travel history. He subsequently succumbed to the illness. While this person was from a middle class, yet he could not get himself tested. In such a scenario, the fate of the 300 million Indians, who have to fend for their food every day, is unspeakably grim.

While the government has belatedly allowed private hospitals and labs to conduct the tests, each test costs nearly INR 5,000 (USD 70), which is more than a half month’s salary for an average urban Indian and almost a month’s wages for a rural Indian. ‘‘How can the poor afford it? It is way beyond their means. They would not even have enough money for food due to the lockdown. The government should have ensured that these tests are provided free of cost to at least those who cannot afford,’’ remarks a policeman who was checking the rare persons who had ventured out on Wednesday in Mumbai’s Juhu area.

The poor and disenfranchised can also not afford to fall ill as they don’t have any savings or cushion to fall back on. Most of them are on daily wages and get money only when they work. Thus, many of them would also be reluctant to get themselves tested as it could mean loss of earnings for at least a few days, since the queues for testing are way too long. Similar is the story with their worries over hospitalisation as their families would be hard put to survive should the earning member of the family be hospitalised.

“The government took too long to wake up. Instead of taking extreme measures only after the virus started spreading, they should have shut the airports in the very beginning that would have stopped people from the COVID-19 affected countries to enter India,” adds Uma.



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