Co-Written by Sushant Kumar Singh & Utpal Pandey

On March, 25th 2020 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his address to the nation, as he often does, at 08:00 pm. In wake of rapid spread of corona virus, he announced locking down of the entire nation, except for some essential services, for 21 days. Thus 1.3 billion People has been decreed to stay home to break the chain of transmission without properly analysing the intricacies and impact of this massive lockdown by the government, which is presenting a severe challenge to the common people, precarious labourers, daily wage labourers, beggars, nomads, disabled  and homeless in carrying out their daily livelihood for survival. It has unleashed complete chaos across the country and has been hindering many essential services and brutal treatment by the police of the poor people of the country has left them in complete dismay and dire straits. For a small section of society, which is rich and able, this lockdown is unlikely to make a significant difference in the way they live. However, for a large section of Indian people, this lockdown comes as a double crisis of health insecurity and economic nightmare.

Two day later a relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore was announced by the ministry of finance of India, which is not showing any immediate effect on the ground. The public got extremely disappointed with the kind of help that was announced amid this global health crisis and soon going to be an economic emergency. What percentage of the total amount, which is 1.7 lakh crore, will be actually utilized to help people will have to be seen in the future. Other nations worldwide have also announced similar packages, though more in terms of magnitude and scope. Things could have been a little better, if the government was clear in its planning and instructions to the responsible authorities. However, government has failed terribly in this. It seems as if all the stakeholders were not taken into confidence and consideration. The PM also did not give any clear assurance to the citizen of India. It all led up to the panic amongst distressed classes and they decided to leave the big cities, as they could easily asses that their survival without work will not be possible. A long queue of such people can be seen heading back to their native places on foot. And at the same time several videos of police brutality on these people have also surfaced, which not only again exposes the insensibility of police, but also failure of government in instructing them properly. It seems as if government was not bothered about these people, when they were deliberating this lockdown.

Migrated labourers, workings in different cities, have lost the opportunity to earn their daily wages and also their jobs. They are not left with any other option except to return to their native place. These labourers are returning without any transport facilities provided by the government. Train and bus services have been abruptly suspended by the government with an extremely short notice. These workers are left stranded around railway stations and bus terminals all over the mega cities of India.  They have to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their home with their small kids and old parents without having adequate food or in some cases no food and with only a few hundred rupees in their pockets. These workers have also been facing harassment and brutality at the hand of Indian police. The Indian police in the name of implementing the lockdown has been constantly harassing these workers and demanding bribes instead protecting them or guiding them so that they could reach to their homes safely. Some of these people are wandering around the cities or its periphery in search of food, water, shelter, etc. Now the already uncertain future of these labourers is in completely darkness. They have hardly any idea, how they will feed their families in coming months or what kind of work they will be getting. Till now government has not come up with any feasible plan to ensure and guarantee socio-economic security to these poor people in time of this crisis and in future too. Government is clearly ill prepared to call out sudden lockdown to contain corona virus. Government has not paid any sincere heed towards the plight of precarious labour which shows its inhuman and insensitive attitude towards the impoverished people of the country. It’s been three days since the announcement of lockdown but people could still be seen migrating in large numbers from cities to villages without any financial support from government. After 2 days, when many of these people were midway or were about to reach their homes on foot with hardly any food in their stomach, the government announced the financial package of 1.7 lakh crore for the people. But how they will ensure and implement it for the poor, homeless, beggars, disabled, widow, unregistered labour and nomadic tribes, is not mentioned clearly. They have already gone through the phase of extreme pain and still going. Will the government provide some sort of compensation for it? Will government arrange testing facilities for them? On one hand government is arranging to evacuate rich citizens trapped in various foreign countries to India and on the other the government has failed to arrange any special transport facilities, even after the three days of announcement, for the migrated daily wagers, who have also voted for the government in the election.

People working in essential services are also having hard time. Even giant groceries retailers like BigBasket and Groffers had to go offline in wake of police crackdown. Many retailers and wholesalers could not reach their respective sabzi mandi especially due to huge harassment by the police force. Fruits and vegetable are rotting in the market.  Truck drivers are being harassed by police when they return with their empty truck. If this will go for a long time it may also lead to shortage of fruits, vegetables and other essential products in market and may cause a quick inflation in food market. And when one goes out to buy fruits and vegetable these days, one always pays some amount extra than usual even now.

It’s the time when the government has to accept the total accountability and install a task force on the ground to take care of stranded poor people and daily wage workers instead of abdicating all its responsibilities to some NGOs and local organizations or civil society. Charity has become the only life support option for these stranded poor people across the country. Here one crucial question arises, who has given this special right to some NGOs and local organisations to carry out charity programme amidst decree of total lockdown? Is this not violating the concept of ‘equality before the law? Where police are randomly beating the helpless poor on the street on account of violating the lockdown, at same time why some people are getting a special treatment in the name of facilitating charity or social work? Why the impoverished is expected to live on the charity of others and also get beaten by the police? Why every time and in every situation, they have to lose their dignity for survival?

Due to this Corona-Crisis people seem to have forgotten other diseases; critical and also usual. A good number of hospitals have started closing their OPDs and some have even already closed. How people are supposed to get themselves treated for usual sickness, has now become a mystery. Government should have, at utmost priority, informed people about how to get medical facilities in the situation of this double crisis in case of medical emergency related to non-Covid19 patients belonging to poor section of the society. These patients could not approach the nearest nursing home or hospitals for treatment due to unavailability of easy transport. They can’t even go by their own vehicle (well, most of them do not have their own vehicles) because police are harassing, beating and charging unfair amount as fine without considering the gravity and solemnity of the issues. The police are not being trained well to assess the necessities of people who are roaming outside due to medical emergency, or buying essential goods or moving to their native place from big cities. No ambulance service has been announced for this difficult time who could take care of non-covid19 patients and the state of existing ambulances services is known to everybody and hardly help anybody.

The World Health Organization has appealed all the countries to expand their testing capacities as much as possible. So that affected people can, immediately, be quarantined and can be prescribed for self-recovery which could slow-down or curb the transmission at large scale. India is struggling with its inadequate health structure and lack of health workers and has decided to test only a limited number of people; mainly those people who have travelled from affected countries or come in contact with a confirmed case and showing symptoms after two weeks of quarantine. This limitation or strategic error on part of India has ignored the testing of Corona affected people, who are asymptomatic and also the people without travel history but showing some symptoms. This could cause the spread of the disease at larger scale.

Central government and state government are announcing the different financial packages and corporates are also offering helping hands in form of charity donation but none of these are effectively mitigating the pain of poor people on the ground, as we don’t have enough infrastructures to manage this double crisis. Whereas, Spain, Ireland, New Zealand and Italy are nationalising their health care system to fight health issues arising out of Corona effectively, efficiently and pervasively, Indian government has put all the responsibility to curb this pandemic on the shoulder of common citizens alone. This epidemic crisis has proved capitalist model cannot guarantee the equal access to essential needs of the life like health, education and home to every person equally. Where state controlled socialist countries like Cuba and China have facilitated health aid to Italy and other affected countries by sending their doctors and others required tools and equipments. US, on the other hand, has ignored the appeal of international community to remove the sanctions imposed on the Iran, so that the they can import medical products and other things needed in fight against Corona. Current health crisis should not be considered as some unique or unexpected exogenous crisis but it is very much endogenous to the protracted structural crisis of capitalism along with the huge persistent income inequality, unemployment, inaccessibility to proper health care by the impoverished, inaccessible quality education, hunger death, climate change etc. Why are we facing lack of hospital and health facilities? The answer lies in the very nature of capitalism. More hospitals could have helped expand the testing facilities which, in turn, would have helped in quarantining the patients till incumbent or mutation period and good supportive care could have saved the lives of the people without halting our economic activities.

All the rush, panic and hysteria right now make us feel as if the coronavirus is the only way to die in the current world, though people have been dying of various reasons since time immemorial. And it will surprise you that a huge number of people die everyday of diseases, which all could well be treated. For some diseases one does not need to visit even hospital. Well, here I am talking about hunger. A rough estimate suggests that at least 2000 people die of hunger every day. Each hour, as per WHO, about 25 deaths are reported in India due to TB. Around 350 people commit suicide each day. And of course there are also some very easily treatable diseases like Dengue, Malaria and various forms of Diarrhoea, a good number of people find themselves unable to get themselves and their family members treated for these diseases. By the way did you care to inform yourself that in 2018, as per WHO, more than 8 lakh children under 5 died? One not only comprehends these things quickly, but also accepts the inevitability of this. Some also can be heard saying that everything cannot be perfect, however this lack of perfection exists only for the impoverished, rich have hardly seen it. There was never such a panic amongst people against this in our lifetime. This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are many such diseases, which could well be eradicated with resources available to us, but nobody pays any heed to this. If such lockdown was called to solve the problem of starvation, the people would have been infuriated and they would have pointed out, how inhuman it is and how people are getting disturbed and cannot continue their normal lives. But now one cannot hear any voice, which is questioning the idea of this lockdown.

Then you may ask why these things are happening? If dying of people is such a normal part of our lives and nobody gives any damn about people losing their lives, why such commotion around us? We are seeing first time in our lives a disease, which is effectively killing the rich. A majority of people right now infected with corona belong to the rich sections of the society and they are dying like any impoverished man out there. However, their death is making more noise and it has forced almost all the nations on their knees and we see a global lockdown now and most of economic activities are at halt. This disease is not very fatal in itself, however it is spreading at a high speed; the number of patients is rising each day. As per data released by WHO, the mortality rate of this disease is around 4% globally and it is expected to go further down with more testing and confirmed infections. At the time of writing this piece a total of 1.3 lakh people had recovered and more than 27 thousand people succumbed to this out of almost 6 lakh confirmed cases around the globe. This has exposed the health system of whole world and how it is unable to deal with pandemic of such an extent. There are apparently no spaces in the hospitals anymore for anyone even in the developed countries. The same is feared in India as well. This lockdown is seen as an effort to slow down the speed of the spread, so that hospitals are able to provide supportive care to increased number of people, as there exist no cure for the disease.  And now the question arises what happens to the impoverished people out there, once all these rich people are treated and discharged? Will they also get treatment and attention like these rich people are getting? Will they still be getting all this nominal support that government announced? Or Corona will be forgotten like TB and people will be left to die. In this context it is worth mentioning that only about 10% of TB patients get proper treatment in India. The facts, on the other hand, indicate that corona, like TB, is going to stay here on the earth for long. However, in the coming days, it seems, effect will be reduced only to the impoverished class of society.

This time we will have to ensure that the economically weaker section of the society is not betrayed and they get what they deserve. In this time of lockdown, we must press and make government accept the demand of complete nationalization of health and education system. And along with that also ensure that a larger portion of budget is spent on public health, education and sanitization. We have been witnessing this for a long time now, that whenever we face a crisis, the capitalist system and its beneficiaries appear to incapable of anything good. All their promises of better world turn out fake just like their advertisements. We should now stop such systems intervening in our critical services like health and education. The workers, homeless, impoverished, disabled and the sick should now resolve to not end this lockdown, until these demands are met. The middle class and other less affected people of the Indian society, who have privilege to read this article, should also join the distressed classes in their struggle, rather than get trapped into the government trick to divert people mind from real issues by facilitating playing Antakshari with Smriti Irani (Minister of Textiles) or diverting their minds by watching re-telecast of Ramayana and Mahabharata (Announced by Mr. Javadekar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting). They can utilize this time to figure out real culprits of this crisis and then the choice will be very obvious to them. This will be a test for this government and chance for it to prove that it is pro-people and not just some part of a capitalist nexus. By providing everybody a better and equal opportunity to health and education, the government can hope to spark a confidence amongst people that the government is there to help, rather than merely allowing a group of capitalists to exploit the people in boom period and socialise the loss and demand the bailout packages in the time of crisis.

  • Sushant is an assistant professor of economics at BN Mandal University and Utpal is independent research scholar

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