As we Indians struggle with the new phenomenon of a complete ‘lockdown’ to contain COVID-19, the number of confirmed infected cases as I write this piece have risen to around 19,000, and around 600 people have died, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). This data will increase by the time this blog is online. The situation is grim, scary, and dismay. But there is another set of data which is less shown, less talked about, and barely discussed by policymakers and that is the deaths due to lockdown.
As a social worker, I strongly think that the fight against COVID-19 should also take into account the death and suffering caused to poor and marginalized people due to the lockdown. Besides death, does any news channel or media brief by the government cover other issues like the number of people sleeping hungry every day, the number of sex workers who cannot afford the urgent medication for HIV, transpersons not able to make both ends meet, Non-Timber Forest Produce (NTFP) farmers (men and women), who are basically tribals sleeping without any meal for so many days, how many migrant labourers (men, women, and children) are still walking the Indian streets, how Dalit daily wage labourers are not being able to access food from Public Distribution System (PDS) due to non-availability of suitable documents to show.
Who will talk about this data? Why are our news agencies not showing this data? Why is our Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment not talking about it? Why do we need to always show our best? Why can’t we show where we are failing?
The system in India has always failed our poor and marginalized sections miserably and shamelessly. Rural men, women, and children are forced to live in their hometowns because the rural system failed to provide them with a decent livelihood. When they reach an urban setting, they are again failed by every system that was established to safeguard the interest of poor urban, like urban local bodies.
In this difficult time, they are crying out for support to allow them to walk home. But here again, the system is using its brutal force to resist their going back. But all these systems have money and political will to bring people back to India from overseas by special flight and students of affluent families back home from Kota with special buses. Forgive me if call this selective and discriminatory nationalism.
A 12-year-old migrant girl walking from the chili field of Telengana to her home in Chhatisgarh died just an hour away from her village. Like this many migrants have died on their way back home after lockdown. Does it matter to anyone of us? The government of India has come forth with its Rs 1.75-Lakh-Crore Package to “address the concerns of poor, migrant workers and those who need help“, as Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated on the Coronavirus Lockdown with a tag line of “No One Will Go Hungry”.
A very good package indeed for the present context, but on the ground, people are struggling to access this package. A lady from the remote tribal hamlet of India showing her Kendu Leaf (KL) Plucking card shared that last year she got Rs. 7200/ from April 29, 2019, to May 19, 2019, by selling KL; but this year she got nothing due to the no-plucking order by Kendu Leaf Department because of the lockdown. As per my estimate, in Odisha, 8 lakhs registered KL pluckers will lose Rs. 540 crores.
Who will ever compensate for this loss of income from poor tribal families? But there will be a huge economic package for the corporate that may come very soon. Rural people received cash in their bank accounts but due to lockdown, they were unable to travel to the bank or ATM to withdraw their cash. The farmers in our country are unable to sell their produce.
Poultry producers in Jharkhand are highly impacted by the decreasing demand for broiler chickens, with rates falling as low as INR 20 per kg, from the regular rate of INR 90 per kg. As per the Economic Times (Feb 2020), “The misinformation passed on through social media about the spread of the virus through poultry and egg has reduced prices drastically in the last four months,” stated the director (Krar Prashant, ET Bureau), of a leading poultry company in Haryana.
Rural halts in Odisha, West Bengal, and Chhattisgarh, and mandis (fruits and vegetable markets) in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are being closed down, making it difficult for smallholder farmers in these areas to sell their produce. Vos, Martin, and Laborde state in their blog published in March this year on the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) website, that the spread of the disease associated with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) may bring damage to the global economy, and with it to food security and efforts to reduce poverty.
The blog further states that its impact will be very different from previous ones, including SARS, avian influenza, and MERS, that caused direct damage to livestock sectors, leading to food shortages and food price hikes in affected areas.
Women and children irrespective of their identities in India are suffering a lot. As per the complaints received by the National Commission for Women (NCW), gender-based violence has recorded more than a twofold rise during the nationwide Coronavirus lockdown period. The total complaints from women rose from 116 in the first week of March (March 2-8), to 257 in the final week (March 23-April 1). “The cases of domestic violence are “high in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, and Punjab,” says NCW chief Rekha Sharma.
I think that one of the main reasons for the rise of domestic violence is that the men at home are taking out their frustrations on women and most of them are refusing to participate in domestic work. Women are also confined within the four walls of the house and cannot share their grief with anybody. Many NGOs have started a helpline to support women.
Lockdown has turned out to be a difficult situation not only for women but also for children across India. This is indicative of the number of SOS calls that the Childline India helpline received since the lockdown began. More than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in just 11 days of lockdown were recorded.
When will our policymakers and different social, political, legal, and economic systems and institutions stop taking decisions from a casteist and patriarchal mindset? Why do we think only for the rich and privileged? Why don’t we make decisions with inclusive and positive discrimination for the poor and marginalized sections? When will we include the poor and marginalized in our definition of nationalism?