Saving Citizens, Killing the Poor: India and COVID-19

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Today is day 9 of the 21-day lockdown in India to slow the spread of COVID-19 transmission. So far, outside of some problematic disease clusters – including one in the Delhi neighbourhood, Nizamuddin West, where the Tablighi Jamaaat in March hosted a religious gathering  – the government of India has been able to stay ahead of the progress of the disease, according to this Channel News Asia account, COVID-19 infection rate steepens as India searches for 9,000 exposed to Delhi cluster.

The Times of India reports 50 COVID-19 deaths in India as of the time of posting, Covid-19 in India: State-wise count of confirmed cases and deaths.

Now, many believe the COVID-19 tsunami is just about to make landfall in India . One reason for the lack of  confirmed cases thus far may be that India is testing far too few people to have an accurate handle on the extent of spread of the disease. Until recently, India only tested people who had traveled abroad, or had a direct link with someone who had the disease. More recently, the testing criteria have been relaxed, to include health workers. So, just as the man who looks for his keys under the streetlight because the light is better there, so India may not be finding many cases of COVID-19 because it’s not looking for them hard enough. (See Chart: As India Increases Covid-19 Testing, New Infections Spurt).

Others have advanced other possible explanations for India’s relatively sparse number of cases. I know there’s lively debate over whether heat and humidity slow COVID-19’s spread. I won’t weigh in on any side of this debate. Yet it’s certainly hottening up as India moves into its summer: today, it is 30 degrees C in Delhi (86 F), 37 degrees C in Kolkata (98 F), and 34 degrees C in Mumbai (93 F). It’s too soon to tell whether General Summer will play the same role in protecting India from the worst ravages of this disease that General Winter periodically plays in the defense of Moscow.

And today, the Indian press widely reported a new study by New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) researchers who cautiously advanced the hypothesis that one reason India, along with Japan, has been less severely affected by COVID-19 is that both require universal childhood immunization with the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine than does either Italy, the Netherlands,  or the United States (see US scientists link BCG vaccination with fewer coronavirus cases, Indian scientists hopeful but cautious).

Now, I am well aware that correlation isn’t causation, and it is well above my pay grade to opine on this issue. I draw attention to this report, so that those more qualified can pipe up in comments. A shout out here to Ignacio:  I would like to see your take on this study. I am also well aware that the global situation is so awful, that I may be leaping to embrace any small cause for optimism.

Lockdown to Be Extended?

From conversations with well-informed Indians, I wouldn’t be surprised if come April 14, the day of its scheduled expiry, the current lockdown will be extended. The government of India has vociferously denied it has any such intention. Here we’d be wise to remember Claud Cockburn’s quip – believe no rumour until it has officially been denied.

The Migration Catastrophe

By now, many people have seen the horrible pictures of the spontaneous migration of millions  of Indian migrant workers from cities, especially Delhi and Mumbai, to the countryside. This is  the greatest exodus of Indians since Partition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of the lockdown took many of these workers by surprise. The lockdown shuttered transportation services – bus, train, airplane. It also led to the cut-off of day wages to these workers.

Unsurprisingly, with no money,  no work, and the threat of disease looming, most workers headed for their home villages — where they knew they could get food, and would have family support  in the event they fell ill (see The Guardian, India racked by greatest exodus since partition due to coronavirus.).

This phenomenon seemed to take the government by surprise.

And, it defeated the primary purpose of the lockdown – reducing contact between people so as to limit COVID-19 spread.

The government’s immediate response: confusion.

Then, Modi weighed in with an apology. From the Hindustan Times, ‘Please forgive me’: PM Modi’s apology to the poor hit by national lockdown:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday sought forgiveness for putting people in trouble by ordering a complete lockdown in the country but said the fight against coronavirus is one of life and death.

“My conscience tells me that you will definitely forgive me as I had to take certain decisions which have put you in a lot difficulty,” he said on his radio programme Mann ki Baat.

“Especially, when I look at my poor brothers and sisters, I definitely feel that they must be thinking what kind of a Prime minister is this who has placed us in this situation,” he added.

“The lockdown is for you to protect you and your family. You have to show this patience for many more days,” he added.

Alas, migrants needed far more than an apology.

And that statement of contrition was quickly replaced by outrage over a  widely reported case, when local officials in Bareilly doused migrants with disinfectant: bleach. The news was picked up widely , first on social media and then in India and internationally, by the BBC, Coronavirus: Anger as migrants sprayed with disinfectant in India and Al Jazeera, Migrants in India sprayed with disinfectant to fight coronavirus. From the latter:

Indian health workers have caused outrage by spraying a group of migrants with disinfectant, amid fears that a large-scale movement of people from cities to the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus.

Footage showed a group of migrant workers sitting on a street in Bareilly, a district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, as health officials in protective suits used hosepipes to douse them in disinfectant, prompting anger on social media on Monday.

Nitish Kumar, the top government official in the district, said health workers had been ordered to disinfect buses being used by the local authorities but in their zeal had also turned their hoses on migrant workers.

A number of opposition leaders, including former Uttar Pradesh chief ministers – Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav – attacked the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state for its “cruel and inhuman” treatment of the poor.

“The workers have already suffered a lot. Please don’t wash them with chemicals now. This will not protect them and instead endanger their health,” tweeted Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

“I have asked for action to be taken against those responsible for this,” he said in a tweet.

Make time to view the embedded video clips in either the BBC and Al Jazeera accounts.

The government insisted on closing state borders. So large masses of workers now find themselves trapped. Others who’ve made it home have been barred from their villages. From The Guardian:

Migrant workers who have made it to their villages have often found they are no longer welcome. In several villages in Bihar and Jharkhand, villagers put up barricades at the entry points and hung posters, warning the migrants against entering the village before a health check.

“We took this decision as outsiders’ entry to the village could put everyone’s life at risk,” said Umesh Singh, 60, a schoolteacher from the village of Baniya-Yadupur in Bihar. “This is very dangerous time and we can’t ignore this.”

The Migration Exodus: A View From Kolkata

I checked in with my friend, Dr. Sunandan Roy Chowdhury, at his home in Kolkata, to get his take on the impact of India’s lockdown on its migrant workers. Sunandan has been active in West Bengal’s politics for many years, and is secretary for Citizens Forum for Peace and Democracy, He responded by email to my questions.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: What does this exodus from the cities tell us about the poor in India?

SUNANDAN ROY CHOWDHURY: Life in the Indian sub-continent does not seem to be of much value, especially if the life in question belongs to the poor strata of society. In the US, there are movements such as ‘Black Lives Matter’. Sadly enough, in India or in the entire sub-continent, we do not have a movement which will say ‘poor lives matter’. That the lives of the working poor matter little to the Indian systems of power, was proven once again in the last seven days.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Tell us about India’s lockdown policy, and its impact on migrant workers who emigrate to the major cities in search of work?

SUNANDAN ROY CHOWDHURY: In the wake of the crisis emanating out of the deadly Corona virus or COVID 19, the Indian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi declared a 21 day lock down starting midnight of 24 March. While the lockdown drastically reduced the possibility of contacts between human beings in the vast geography that is India, thereby hopefully reducing the chances of contamination of the virus and saving people from contracting the disease, it also put in peril lives and health conditions of hundreds of thousands of working class people who have moved from one part of India to another in search of jobs.

Between two to five million people from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa leave their native villages or towns to go and work in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and in the areas around Delhi. Many also go to Kerala or to Gujarat and Maharashtra. The poorer east sends the working hands to factories and farms of the more prosperous north, west and south. Knowledge of this phenomenon is fairly common place in the well-educated and aware sections of India’s confident upper middle class.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: To what extent do you fault the Modi government for the impact of its lockdown on India’s migrant workers?

SUNANDAN ROY CHOWDHURY: When the lockdown was declared, the decision was taken hurriedly. Neither the Prime Minister, nor his close group of trusted political colleagues, the ministers who are in his close circle, nor the senior bureaucrats around him – and I believe the decision of 21 day lockdown was done with adequate consultation, no one at the top of India’s government cared to think what will happen to these couple of million of migrant workers.

The result unfolded as a human tragedy of great proportions. Hundreds of thousands of workers with their families, among them infants and young children were stranded in India’s capital, scrambling to get into buses which have also been taken off roads in the wake of the lockdown. Some got into buses, tales have spread that a bus has carried up to two hundred people, with eighty of them on the top of the bus. Television cameras have witnessed people walking five hundred kilometers to walk home. No food, no water, no shelter, and the scorching sun. Scenes of British India’s partition on 15 August 1947 have come to haunt the nation. When the government at Centre and in the states realized the severity of the situation, already at least twenty lives were lost. At the time of writing on 29 March there were twenty nine deaths from Corona in India and there were at least twenty deaths due to government negligence.

Shall we blame the Prime Minister for this, shall we blame some chief ministers of the states from where the workers hail? I think the bureaucrats are no less to blame. It is true that the final decision was definitely the PM’s but I won’t be convinced that he alone took a decision of this proportion; it was more of a collective decision. Where was any wisdom of the bureaucrats, many of whom have served in the districts and all of whom must know that there are nearly five million workers who move from one part of India to another for jobs. And, many of them are domestic workers in the homes of the bureaucrats themselves. So, I will say it is the politicians and bureaucrats and the entire upper strata of Indian society who have failed India’s poor. And, of course, this is not the first time, and if Corona does not shake us to the core, then it won’t be the last time either.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD:  I’m struck by the lack of concern for the needs of India’s poorest citizens. This problem seems to extend well beyond this government’s COVID-19 policy.

SUNANDAN ROY CHOWDHURY: The poor workers are poor not only in that they have poor incomes. They do not have a voice, they do not have trade unions to come to their rescue. In India even the trade unions are also clubs of the affluent. Only seven percent of India’s work force is unionized, and these are the well-heeled and well-oiled employees in banks, large private and public corporations and in India’s stagnant universities, schools and colleges. India’s middle class not only has an incompetent governing group, but it creates this incompetence at the top by producing and re-producing class and caste hierarchies in every modern institution.

So, the tragedy that has unfolded in the wake of the unplanned, poorly planned decision of lockdown, is only the tip of the iceberg, it betrays a much greater and much deeper malaise. If educated westernized and now sufficiently Hinduttva-ised India, if that India does not mends its ways, then it is a matter of decades, when that iceberg will destroy India’s five-trillion dollar titanic.

Modi Government’s Response

The Modi government has made available some limited economic support. As Al Jazeera reports, Hungry, desperate: India virus controls trap its migrant workers:

Under pressure to address the growing emergency, the central government last week announced a $23bn welfare scheme for the poor. This included doubling the amount of free food rations under an existing national programme, $10 to tide over senior citizens, and raising wages by $0.27 per day for those working under the government’s rural employment scheme.

The situation reminds me of a supersized version of the 2016 demonetisation debacle, and I’m not the only one to make the comparison (see, India: Demonetization Debacle, a 2018 post-mortem analysis of a Reserve Bank of India report, which is only one of several Naked Capitalism accounts).

As Jayati Ghosh, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi and frequent Naked Capitalism contributor told Al Jazeera:

“The events are similar in the sense that policymakers now seem just as unprepared for the consequences as they were back then, and again the poorest are suffering – but at least during demonetisation not every part of the economy came to a grinding halt”.

Ghosh and others say say that the aid it has provided is sadly inadequate to the magnitude of the economic damage it has inflicted. From Al Jazeera:

Though India’s migrant labourers are significant in number, this group is a political “blindspot”, Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, told Al Jazeera.

“We should be setting up community kitchens and converting schools into welfare centres, but sadly our policymakers seem to be watching out more for the middle and upper classes,” she said. “They clearly didn’t anticipate any of this, and now everything feels like an afterthought”.

The central government in New Delhi had asked regional states to prevent a migrant exodus by providing food and shelter, but too little time was given to implement this before the lockdown was imposed, “turning a public health crisis into a larger humanitarian one”, says [Nivedita Jayaram, a researcher at Aajeevika Bureau, a labour research and legal organization]. Aajeevika

“While we warned overseas Indians in advance and chartered flights to bring them back home, we’ve left our internal migrants to fend for themselves,” she said.

Many countries have used cash transfers to support falling incomes during the pandemic. Though India followed suit by announcing an extra $20 spread over three months paid directly into Jan Dhan bank accounts – free accounts provided under the central government’s financial inclusion programme – the amount is small, worth only approximately three days of wages for an inner-city construction worker.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said the relief package was designed “to reach out to those who are most requiring of such measures … the poorest of the poor”. At the launch of the rescue package last month, she also said: “We do not want anyone to remain hungry.”

But economists say it falls short in light of the severity of the situation.

“I’m not sure how an amount like this could be seen as viable in the kind of crisis we’re in,” says JNU’s Ghosh. “If we are cutting off incomes for a month or probably longer, the amounts provided should reflect that”. The cash transfers should not just be to Jan Dhan accounts either, she added, since many migrants are unlikely to be covered by those.

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