isIn February, 12-year-old Jamlo Makdam left his home in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh to work as a farm worker in the Telangana pepper fields, earning 200 rupees (around £ 2) a day. But on the morning of March 23, she – along with hundreds of millions of others across the country – suddenly found out they weren’t allowed to work. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the previous evening the draconian lockdown of India, stopping all economic activity, even all movement, with only four hours’ notice. No public transport, no people allowed on the roads, no open shops or workplaces; and no chance of survival for the roughly 450 million informal workers in India who lack legal or social protection.
For a while, the girl lived off the salary she had saved to bring home. But within weeks the money was exhausted, and without any compensation in the form of food or money transfers, she and her friends were on the verge of starvation. Desperate, they began the long journey home, traveling 150 km for three days and three nights through forests and fields, avoiding highways where they could be pulled over and punished by police just for daring to be on the road. road. But on April 18, dehydrated and malnourished, Jamlo collapsed and died within hours of her home.
Jamlo has become another statistic in the ever-growing number of ‘lockdown deaths’, now estimated at nearly a thousand, resulting from the state’s brutal response to Covid-19 which has both created a humanitarian catastrophe and no ‘failed to stop the relentless outbreak of the disease. In India, dealing with the pandemic has never really been about lives versus livelihoods: it was, and continues to be, a life versus life issue, with some lives being much cheaper than life. ‘other. India has for some time been a world leader on economic disparities and social discrimination; the political response to the pandemic has brought this to the fore while introducing more recent, even more unsavory elements.
The disease entered India through those who had traveled abroad – the richest 2% of the population. But the poor must have suffered disproportionately because of it – and now, more and more, they are blamed for its spread. The age-old practices of pollution, purity and stigma that were part of hierarchical caste-based Hinduism have been reoriented as “social distancing”, with health problems justifying grossly discriminatory behavior. The attitudes of the elites and the middle class have been shameful: hypocritically slamming plates to celebrate health workers, then stigmatizing them as sources of infection and not caring about paying or protecting frontline workers the lowest paid in community health and sanitation.
While societal responses have been lacking, government responses have been even worse. (States like Kerala are honorable exceptions.) The central government’s approach to public health has been stingy, incompetent and callous. The containment policies copied from China and Europe show no recognition of the lived reality of a large part of the Indian population. Social distancing – more specifically physical – cannot be done by people living in overcrowded, cluttered homes with five or more people living in one room. Frequent hand washing is a luxury when access to safe drinking water is limited and must be collected during long and arduous journeys made by women and girls. But the civil service saw no need to adjust these guidelines or allow the poor to achieve them. And the treatment of infected people varies enormously according to income: public hospitals are overcrowded and overcrowded; the private ones charge stratospheric tariffs.
Even more telling was the official attitude towards the roughly 100 million or more rural-urban migrants who build India’s cities and provide their services. At the start of the lockdown, special repatriation flights were organized for Indians stranded abroad. But internal migrants did not enjoy such relief for two months; they were deprived of their right to a livelihood but received only – and rarely – the most paltry compensation. When, in desperation, they traveled in handcarts, containers and concrete mixers or simply traveled hundreds of kilometers to return home, they were beaten, detained, sprayed with disinfectant, and even killed on train tracks. where they slept, thinking that no train was allowed. . Arbitrary dusk-to-dawn curfews across the country (without public health justification) forced them to walk in the blazing heat. When special train services for these migrants were finally put in place, nearly two months after the lockdown, working poor people had to congregate in large numbers at stations to secure tickets, expose themselves to infection and pay full price. Conditions aboard these trains were often so appalling, with trips delayed in intense heat without a supply of food and water, that in just 10 days in May, 80 people died on board.
India’s public distribution system, which currently holds nearly 100 million tonnes of food grain stocks, could have been used to feed the new hungry. But only small amounts have been given away for free even as evidence of starvation increases, and this parsimony has been compounded by the obscenity of selling stocks of food to convert it into ethanol to make hand sanitizers. Meanwhile, the unique focus on Covid-19 means other poor health issues are being ignored or given less attention. Tuberculosis has been the biggest killer of the poor in India, but many tuberculosis patients have not received treatment. Vaccination of children suffered and deliveries in hospital fell by 40%.
There are many other ways in which political responses to Covid-19 have intensified existing inequalities of class, caste, gender, and even religion. Despite this, poll figures do not appear to show a sharp decline in support for Modi and the opposition (including political parties, unions and social movements) does not appear to have made much progress. Is the current seemingly passive and fatalistic attitude of the oppressed millions a sign of a new enslavement – or just a lull before the storm?
• Jayati Ghosh is Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi