India is Ignoring Anxieties and 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 life.

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 government.

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.

First published in Newsclick. The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and author.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.