Saving lives by preventing discrimination in COVID-19 relief

Image courtesy: The Print

As COVID-19 sweeps across the world it is crucial that we ensure that relief, health services and awareness raising efforts are inclusive and accessible to all irrespective of caste, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other factors. While time is of the essence in the response to COVID-19, taking a moment to ensure that high risk communities such as Dalits are included and addressed in global, national and local responses to COVID-19, can save millions of lives.

IDSN and its members have documented discrimination in relief in relation to numerous disasters in the past including flooding, droughts and earthquakes, where Dalits have been left behind, not provided relief materials on an equitable basis and not given equal access to healthcare, shelter or rehabilitation due to ingrained stigma and discrimination.

There is a high risk that COVID-19 will also be widespread in caste-affected countries and it is therefore crucial that the unique nature of caste discrimination and the discriminatory practice of untouchability are taken into account. Therefore, Dalit communities and civil society organisations must be consulted and included in planning and implementation efforts to mitigate the serious repercussions of COVID-19.

8 Key factors that make Dalits a particularly high-risk group include:

  • Dalit communities often live in segregated areas that are neglected and under prioritised – in the past it has been documented that awareness raising, health outreach and relief have not reached these areas.
  • Dalits often do not have access to clean water or sanitation facilities in their homes.
  • Many Dalits live in crowded spaces with whole families sharing one or two rooms – making physical distancing and isolation impossible within their living spaces.
  • Dalits make up a large section of workers in the unorganised sector on short-term contracts, as day labourers, home-based workers or modern slaves. This means they may lose their income and means of feeding their families from one day to another due to measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
  • Discrimination in accessing healthcare facilities for Dalits due to social stigma and untouchability is well-documented and Dalits risk being left behind or treated last.
  • Dalits suffer significantly higher rates of malnutrition and poverty, and therefore often have a weakened immune system. Furthermore, higher mortality and lower rates of literacy are widespread among these communities.
  • Dalits make up the vast majority of India’s sanitation workers – including as manual scavengers – removing human excrement or cleaning sewers without proper protection gear.
  • Intersectional caste and gender discrimination means that Dalit women are at particular risk.

8 Key Recommendations:

  • Consult and include Dalit communities, elected Dalit village council representatives and civil society organisations in planning and implementation efforts to ensure equal access to healthcare, relief and economic compensation in relation to COVID-19 and in any additional special measures needed in relation to the situation of Dalit communities.
  • Ensure that caste and gender discrimination is explicitly addressed and mentioned in any policy documents, briefings and advisories in relation to COVID-19 in caste-affected countries.
  • Tailor policies aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 to the particular housing and living conditions of individual communities. Since Dalit communities and residents are densely packed, governments should arrange regular health camps for treatment and screening purposes.
  • Ask that relief, service, information or healthcare providers as well as NGOs ensure and document that they are reaching Dalit communities with provisions and relief on an equal basis and are not giving preferential treatment on the basis of caste. Make a provision to recruit Dalit medical workers and providers and make medicine subsidised or free.
  • Tailor measures including economic compensation, financial security, outreach and basic necessities to reach landless and informal sector workers including home-workers, undocumented workers, day labourers and contract workers and provide proper protection for sanitation workers.
  • Implement specific interventions for Dalits who are waste pickers, informal waste collectors and sanitation workers, such as personal protection equipment and safety gear being made available at all times. Facilities to wash hands with soap and water, and sanitisers should be mandatory.
  • Lock down circumstances: A special government modal unit, helpline, readiness department or one stop single window should be prepared for Dalits and non-Dalits who fall below the poverty line and/or in the daily wage labour category. This unit will specifically cater to the immediate supply and procurement of rations or essential products like food, soap, masks, and potable water during the lockdown period.
  • All National and State Human Rights Institutions should start monitoring the situation to ensure that no one is left behind in all measures that are undertaken by the government.

These are just a few general level key recommendations. IDSN member, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, have issued an appeal, endorsed by IDSN, that includes more specific recommendations and expanded calls to action aimed at the Government of India, much of which is also applicable to other caste-affected countries. IDSN members across South Asia are also mobilising to support Dalit communities with outreach as the situation escalates, and will continue to monitor the situation.

International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)

[email protected]/ www.idsn.org