By Soma Mandal
The nation-wide ban on public life in India from 25 March, 2020 has severely hit India’s underprivileged. The sweeping attack of the novel coronavirus across the world if unchecked would trigger greater degrees of mortality in the poorer sections of the developing nations. Covid-19’s seepage route through international airports and corridors of foreign travel, all thanks to the millennial and global cosmopolitans, is a one-shot lethal brand for India’s section of the filthy poor.
How far the virus would flourish and deepen its impact among urban slums, rural and indigenous communities, pavement dwellers, safai karmacharis (manual scavengers), migrants, farmers, daily wage labourers, working poor and in colonies of Red Light Areas (RLA’s) which witnesses an influx of international traffickers and customers, does not explicitly reflect in an overrated relief measure from the Centre waiting for clearance. The soaring numbers envision doom as ground realities in the working-class households, whose houses refuse to bear resistance to various kinds of afflictions, death, disease and poverty, do not equal the living standards of upper echelons of the society.
On 26 March, on the second day of the nation-wide ban, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a pandemic relief package from the Centre for poor migrants, women, senior citizens and disabled persons under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna that will have a target fund of 1.7 lakh crore. The distress package under Prime Minister Garib Anna Yojna would provide 1.5 kg grains (rice or wheat) in addition to 2.1 kg pulses to 80 crore poor people for the next three months. PM Kisan Yojna under Kisan Samman Nidhi would additionally provide Rs. 2050, besides the sum of 6000 provided annually to 8.69 crore farmers. The announcement also included medical insurance coverage for 20 lakh health workers including doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, para-medicals, etc. A slew of mother measures for different sections of the underprivileged were also announced. The relief package, however, does not mention the logistical problems of transportation and supply of foodgrain to rural centres where contactless or essential delivery services are almost absent. While claiming that the economic relief package would provide minimum basic requirements for sustenance does not make any claim of securing poor people’s lives in terms of insurance and employment. The question remains if the relief package would be enough to save the poor during the lockdown. The package is not an immunity booster for people fighting against biological and social viruses. The relief measures are temporary and insufficient as compared to the affluent classes who do not have to negotiate multiple factors of marginality. Even the cost of Covid-19 test kits in India – about Rs. 4500, as compared to 300 rupees in Bangladesh and 500 rupees in Pakistan – is beyond the reach of the poor.
Covid-19 lockdown should not be turned into an aggressive political exercise to promote the agenda of nationalism. The instance of permanent lockdown without addressing the state’s inadequacy to provide food and health services exemplify overdetermination of the government in various aspects. India’s public safety response to lockdown after Janta Curfew on 22 March signals interminable anxiety and precarity of the poor. It has endangered the most marginalized people’s economic systems and living structures. The shutdown, a preventive attempt to curb covid-19 crises, temporarily disbands the poor by further pushing them out of work, significantly displacing labourers who are unable to return to their villages. With the global pandemic toll increasing steadily at an unprecedented rate, India’s 73 million poor people out of 1.3 billion Indians, i.e. 5.5 per cent of its total population according to the Brookings report, have a high risk of contamination. As this intense phenomenological rupture unfolds, and the world temporarily comes to a halt, Covid-19’s alarming implication for the poor has become one of the biggest challenges for the government in Indian history.
Carriers of Covid-19 across a host of European and Asian countries are sufficiently rich. Yet when the poor are faced with this kind of adversity, as helpless victims of global capitalist systems of power and pathogens, the history of erasure, invisibility and marginal positions of their life within the institutions of the state is once again foregrounded. Their struggle against the wealthy upper-class is not simply of economic sustenance but a more profound fight for survival. The question that baffles the more privileged citizens like us are: How equipped is India’s working class to tackle the coronavirus and the continuous lockdown? Financial crises of the poor in terms of absence of capital, no right to proper housing and non-availability of food resource would increase their vulnerability. Risk management programs and relief measures are the need of the hour. Political attitudes towards lockdown should be cognizant of the social context and relative deprivation of the disadvantaged. Many wage labourers unaware of relief measures in Delhi and other cities are hopelessly walking back home for 3-4 days to return to their loved ones. The tragedy of the poor is inevitable and with near lack of implementation on the ground, they are stuck with no hope of rescue in the middle of a dangerous situation. It is harrowing to see these labourers still trying to find an exit from fear of death, disease and entrapment, all of which are major psychological stressors of the urban migrants.
The objective of ‘social distancing’ to control the novel coronavirus, however, has a familiar analogy in the Indian socio-cultural system. Social distancing and its inter-relationship to the untouchables of the lower class and caste especially the Shudras have been a historical phenomenon in India. The Ambedkarite agitations and movements resisted and exposed the dehumanised experience of the lower class. Stratification into a caste system and social distancing practiced by the upper class is based on the brahminical notions of purity and pollution. The coronavirus induced social distancing subsequently threatens to aggravate and increase structural discrimination of Dalits, minorities and the poor mazdoor class whose bodily embodiments signify dirt and disease to the upper-class people. Persistence of oppressive and ideological structures of casteism and the practice of social distancing outside the medical model, even within, would re-institute cycles of exclusion for the discriminated class. The irony of increased social distancing and digital connection initiatives like work from home are non-poor state measures that would re-enforce stereotypes of poverty and caste.
Arguably, the altruistic efforts and public initiatives taken by the ruling government to curb the Covid-19 menace would help to reinforce the cult of personality and political ideology of the incumbent government. But how far that would remain impressionable on the citizens’ mind would determine critical milestones in Indian nationalist politics. There is a reasonable disagreement about how effective altruistic efforts for the poor only during the lockdown period would not help reduce the poor’s suffering. With minimal SOPs in place, the picture looks even worse. In Pathological Altruism (2012), Barbara Oakley, Guruprasad Madhavan, Ariel Knafo and David Sloan Wilson argue that this sudden altruistic process by the State would result in unanticipated harm of the poor, instead of promoting welfare, due to formulation of ineffective social programs during normal and critical times.
The emergency public health system needs to respond to and help to limit the health consequences of the pandemic. When global pathogens enter local ecosystems, the bio-ecological consequences of indigenous local communities’ interactions with the infectious virus would end in ecological pathology. In Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor (2004) by Paul Edward Farmer, a medical anthropologist, constitutional inequalities of the poor mass is linked to broader epistemes of structural violence and pathological rise in political and socio-economic injustice that is mirrored in plagues, death and disease. Similarly, in Infections and Inequalities (2001), Farmer categorically shows how modern plagues target the poor directly or indirectly with extreme violations of human rights. As evident, India’s working class, who can’t afford to have more than a hand to mouth income, barely one square meal a day, with dirty living conditions, would, therefore, be the biggest victims of clinical pathogens and pathologies of socio-political powers in the present times.
Soma Mandal is an independent scholar. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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