Rising Cases, Unemployment: Is India Ignoring Fears Stoked by the Pandemic?
Are we ignoring the human cost of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Ever since the lockdown and various stages of the "un-lockdown" there has been
no dearth of "knowledgeable" persons trying to script an "all is well in India" story. The latest spin as we stand at No. 2, ahead of Brazil, as the most
infected country, is that the number of deaths (currently 80,776) is rather low for a population of 130 crore.
In fact, there are repeated reminders from BJP leaders, the Prime Minister
included, that infections may be on the rise but our mortality rate-1.7 deaths
per 100 cases-is rather low compared to countries like Italy, United States and
the United Kingdom.
Not just that, we are told that comfort must be
drawn from the fact that of the 48 lakh who have tested positive 38 lakh have
recovered. So, the situation is under control and there is no need to panic.
But the big question is this: should we hastily be drawn into a false sense of
complacency by reposing faith in carefully projected statistics which often hide
more than they reveal?
If we set aside numbers and look at the official
response to the pandemic then it becomes evident that the one issue that has
been conveniently sidestepped or not adequately addressed is the impact the
virus has had on lives of those infected and their families. And what of the
additional 90,000 plus who now join the ranks of confirmed cases each day?
Simple arithmetic tells you that if every person
among the 48 lakh found positive was quarantined for 14 days, it amounts to a
staggering 6.72 crore working days lost. Even if we grant that 15-16 lakh of
this population were either retired or could work from home during quarantine,
the days lost to the virus would still be about three crore.
Add to that the lakhs of working-class families
who fled larger towns and cities once the nationwide lockdown was imposed for
21 days and subsequently extended. In fact, the mass migration intensified
following lockdown-II. It was unprecedented in Independent India as
panic-stricken people deserted urban centres where they had been working for
years and rushed back to the villages. With no prospect of work or even
compensation for the first 21 days of the lockdown, many in the informal sector
were left with no other option.
The government, which initially downplayed the
exodus, was pressed by public pressure to run special trains and bus services
to clear the crowds that thronged railway and bus stations. In panic, many even
walked 100 to 200 kilometres to get back home.
There is no official statistic that zeroes in on
how many of these migrants returned to the cities or managed to get
jobs after the lockdown was lifted in phases. What we know is that even the
relatively secure salaried class took a big hit. According to the Centre for
Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) the Coronavirus-induced shutdown led to 2.10
crore salaried employees losing their jobs between April-August.
Of course, this figure does not include the millions
who work on contract or were daily wagers. But the prognosis is grim. The
International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 400 million working in
the informal sector may fall into deeper poverty because of the Novel
Coronavirus crisis. Any relief or economic revival package must factor in those
directly or indirectly hit by the pandemic.
The impact of the lockdown and the growing
Covid-19 problem on the overall economy is far too obvious. Suffice to say that
the 24% contraction in the GDP reflects the fact that virtually every sector
has been severely impacted. Economists have been articulating corporate woes
and ruing the fact that the fiscal stimulus of less than 2% of the GDP is
grossly inadequate for any recovery from the bad times.
But what about those from the underclass who
tested positive and were rendered jobless? But for honourable exceptions such
as Kerala and Chhattisgarh, there is no clear-cut relief package for them. And
even when help is promised it is by and large on paper and fails to reach those who need it most. The poor are left
to fend for themselves. Consequently, testing positive is a cruel predicament
for families which cannot sustain themselves if their breadwinners miss even a
single day of work.
It goes without saying that a substantial chunk
of confirmed cases is from the underclass. And the nature of their employment
is such that the "no work no pay" principle invariably rules. Not just that,
post-quarantine many run the risk of losing jobs since smaller establishments
are known to replace rather than re-employ those rendered out of action by a
deadly and infectious virus.
Only those in permanent jobs or are secure and
comfortable in their retirement can take the virus lightly. They can afford to
dismiss it "as a flu which comes and goes". For others who are not as fortunate
Covid-19 can derail lives and wreck livelihoods even without causing loss of
That is why people are wary of getting labelled as positive and placed
under quarantine. Last week a pre-recorded message from Delhi Chief Minister
Arvind Kejriwal implored citizens to come forward for free testing. While
underlining the fact that the costs will be borne by the government, he
wondered why people were still reluctant.
The answer is plain to see-people are afraid. The consensus is that once positive you are
like a condemned person-rendered unemployed or unemployable. And many are
afraid of being taken away to a hospital or an isolation centre set up by the
None of the messaging from the Union health
ministry dispels all these apprehensions. Those who come forward to test do so
because they have developed symptoms and have been advised by their doctors, or
for fear that they may be passive carriers likely to infect their families.
They do not act in national interest or to safeguard society as the awareness
campaigns implore them to.
By all accounts, it is now clear that if the
fight against the pandemic must involve participation from the larger populace,
then governments at the centre and the state should convince the public that it
is not a taboo to test positive. They must also provide the all-important
reassurance that official support will be extended to the marginalised whose
livelihoods get disrupted during quarantine or hospitalisation. This is vital
since we lack any social security cover worth the mention. It must also be made
mandatory that employers re-employ workers once they recover.
Unless this is done, and fiscal relief provided
to the poor, the fight against the pandemic and the economic downturn will not
have the desired impact. As it is, there is a trust deficit. Remember when the
first 21-day lockdown was announced in March, the Prime Minister had promised
workers would be compensated for the shutdown period. But that was not
honoured by many
establishments and employers. Clearly the government must win the confidence
of the people if the fight is to be effectively sustained till a vaccine is
found. If not, our pandemic woes will only intensify as the number of confirmed
cases surges and spreads to rural India.
The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and
author. The views are personal.