Authors: Dr. Manasi Sinha and Pratyush Bibhakar
“Social distancing”—The Way out :A nasty and deadliest Spanish flu that started spreading around the world infecting and killing over 50 million of world’s population during world war I, was contained to a large extent by following measures now known as “social distancing”. This social distancing may be understood as creating a safety net by maintaining physical distance between two or more people so as to prevent or control or ‘flatten the curve’ of the transmission process of virus/flu. In the wake of uncertainty looming over safe and effective measures to eliminate pandemic COVID 19 which is the biggest, trickiest and deadliest war on humanity ever, many countries across the world are now implementing measures like “social distancing” in form of prohibiting mass gatherings, restricting entry to public spaces, shutting down schools, colleges and in some places a total lockdown is enforced by keeping people stay indoors.
India’s Strategy against COVID: However, in an unequal social system that thrives on stratification of class and communities, differentiation of labour, status and capital, social distancing may not be a successful strategy to get by. In an unequal stratified system like India, social distancing turns out to be a ‘privilege’ available only to the upper-class well-off Indians. For people at the lower strata, social distancing stands unbearable, as more than fighting a disease, they fight against hunger, wage and shelter in their daily lives. This may magnify their miseries and distress substantially. In the midst of21 days nation-wide lockdown in the largest democracy of the world, India has just witnessed how it has been tumbling not only in executing its strategy of social distancing to fight the growing coronavirus pandemic, it also has failed larger chunk of its mass–around 85% of this constitutes the informal workers— mostly migrated ones, who are the worst hit in absence of a contingency plan to fight and survive this situation.
In line with following global strategy of enforcing strict lock downs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24th March 2020 had announced a 21 days lockdown to contain the spread of COVID 19. A ‘Janta Curfew’ was initiated two days before on 22nd March to prepare Indians to fight the long battle against coronavirus outbreak. As the lock down continues, a total of 1251 COVID-19 cases (including 49 foreign nationals) have been reported in 27 states/union territories in India as on 30th March 2020(Source: Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW).
The Ground Reality: While the infected numbers do not project a grim picture compared to other countries that are struggling to contain the virus, concerns growing in India, as nearly 85% of India’s population (roughly 120 million) appears to be stranded without basic security of food, wage and shelter. Migrant workers forms majority of this population, who work in construction sites, drive taxis, work in restaurants, staff factories, work in saloon, houses etc. thus often employed in low paid hazardous jobs. This informal workforce is also deprived of any social security benefits including paid leave etc. and they thrive on low wages. As such, they succumb to inevitable cycle of poverty, hunger and death as the city shuts down. COVID 19 pandemic is setting up similar ground for these people. In absence of availability of basic needs walking home for hundred miles remains an only option left for them. They prefer to leave the city, they have lived for all their lives as it no longer shelters them and feeds them; itno longer brings hope of surviving poverty, hunger and their daily mundane needs—the city of dreams turns hostile and deeply inhospitable. As they set forth, many of them are stranded in big cities or stuck midway and are struggling to keep themselves safe and healthy. On 28th March, Saturday tens of thousands of workers flocked at various city-bus stations in efforts to reach home. In Anand ViharInter-state bus terminal, New Delhi, several migrant workers including women stood in a long 3 km queue for hours carrying their baggage with kids in hope of returning to their relatives and families in different parts of the country. “For two days the ration guys were not giving us any food, we were hungry for two days. So, we decided, ‘let us go to our parents’,” said Raju, a 24-year old migrant worker walking from Noida, a satellite town of Delhi, to Agra, nearly 200 km away. As such, this mass exodus becomes a potential blow to India’s coronavirus containment strategy as it presents a miserable scenario awaited in coming days. As on 30th March 2020 the situation got worsened further killing around 20 lives.
As other countries across the world havei nitiated measures to support their citizens, voices from civil society in India already mounting up pressure on the government to provide immediate cover of social security measures including cash transfers for daily wagers, informal sectors and migrant labourers particularly women who have little social and community support and therefore remain most vulnerable.
As ground reality remains challenging, diverse measures are taken by the Central and state governments to control the mass exodus of daily-waged workers. To fight against this deadliest pandemic, Indian government extended its support to protect the poor people hit by this lock down, by unveiling $22.6bn stimulus plan. The plan seeks to provide direct cash transfers and food security measures, thus offering relief to millions of people at this critical juncture. Further, the centre decided to provide three meals a day to more than 100,000 people living in 1500 shelter homes for the urban homeless across the country. There are directives given to all the states and union territories to use State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF)to make arrangements for temporary accommodation, food distribution, clothing and medical facilities to the downtrodden ones particularly the migrant labourers. Some Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Delhi have speeded up their initiatives to meet the basic needs of migrant workers by scaling up monetary assistance and providing ration facilities to the homeless.
However, panic continues and migrant workers still on their way back home because of two more reasons: First: the lock down triggered a wave of panic making hundred thousand of homeless workers frightened and terrified in absence of any administrative assistance and coordination from government machinery. Second: with the expensive private healthcare and insufficient and unavailability of public health care facilities, the fear psychosis persists amongst these migrant workers making them non-complicit of ‘social distancing’.
The Anticipated Calamity and Lessons: Considering the gamut of India’s population and its diverse nature including these migrant population, immediate steps are required to provide a contingency plan for the migrant workers—who form the backbone of India’s economy. Failing to respond quickly to address this problem may lead to a worst situation that may further claim deaths of millions. As tens of thousands of migrants are in limbo and are not distancing themselves from others–they are prone to get infected quickly and in large numbers. After days of journey and returning to their villages, they may carry the symptoms of corona virus and may spread it among other communities, resulting into the dangerous III phase in which the pandemic advances towards community transmission across the country. Although the number of COVID 19 cases are still low in India as compared to other countries, experts have already warned against community spread as they think this may result into increased need for health facilities and India is yet to be equipped to facilitate and strengthen its health care sector. The existing measures like ‘Janata Curfew’, ‘Social distancing’ ‘21 days lock-down’ that India has opted for, may possibly protect its upper class people who could afford to stay inside home, however, the same is a fallacy for people at the lower strata because of the precarious life they live in. A calamity like COVID 19 may be taken as an experience to introspect upon a combination of development agenda, a contingency plan and management of strategies that India should keep as a stand by formula to mitigate any future crisis like this.