US Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated, “We simply cannot return to where we were before COVID-19 struck.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the entire world to a standstill and India is no exception. The country entered into a nationwide lockdown on March 25 2020 and since then socio-economic problems have been on the surge. The various vulnerable sections of the society are deeply impacted by the lockdown and are likely to be the worst victims of the pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed the deep-seated inequalities in our society. None of us is unaware of the plight of the migrant workers and various other atrocities meted out to people based on their castes.
Even the most developed countries of the world are now facing severe shortages of medical facilities to cater to the increasing medical needs of the people. The health system of many developed, as well as developing countries, have broken down completely thus removing the North-South paradigm eroding the importance of the traditional development actors in the global economy. In such circumstances, we need to rethink our policies about various sectors and sections of society and reconsider the measures undertaken to have a better life post-pandemic.
The glaring inefficiency of the health sector in meeting the needs of the general public has been the biggest eye-opener of this pandemic. Increasing privatization of the health services in various countries has proved to be fatal as the number of hospital beds especially in the intensive care units, has decreased in comparison to the population.
In Italy, which is one of the worst victims of the pandemic outbreak, hospital beds have reduced by almost one third over the past 20 years. In India, there are only 0.55 beds per 1000 population. There are approximately 713,986 government hospital beds in India out of which only 5 to 8% are ICU beds.
The abysmally low number of beds in government hospitals is an example of how much harm the neoliberal regime and its policies of privatization of essential services have caused to the health infrastructure of the country.
Since the global financial crisis, a lot of countries have slashed budgets in the health sector and letting private for-profit medical companies taking the upper hand in providing medical care. This has led to more investments and promotion of those treatments and operations that are economically profitable and lucrative thereby leading to negligence of basic primary healthcare.
In the current health crisis, in most of the countries, it is the public health care services that are helping people in fighting against the pandemic. In such situations, isn’t it imperative that we take a lesson from this and invest more in the public health infrastructure in the future rather than slashing funds?
Apart from the shortcomings of the health sector, another disastrous situation that India has faced amidst the pandemic is the plight of the migrant workers. The government in its vision to rebuild the Indian Economy to cope with the economic breakdown owing to the lockdown had launched the ‘Aatma Nirbhar Bharat’ relief package. While the package has received its share of appreciations and criticisms, a lot of people think that it cannot restore the moral compass of India that it has lost in its ignorance towards the marginalized sections of the society.
The government no doubt has put in its best efforts to revive the economy by introducing measures like selling of only indigenous products in the canteens of CRPFs and BSFs, collateral-free loans up to Rs. 3 lakh crore for businesses including MSMEs, no global tender worth up to Rs. 200 crore for MSMEs etc.
However, in the rut to promote a ‘nationalist’ economy, the government has forgotten about the plight of hundreds and thousands of migrant workers and the immediate relief that these workers would require. It had no immediate measures for the poor and hungry workers who had been walking miles with most of the meetings with deaths on their way back home.
Even after the arrangement of Shramik special trains, most of the workers had to walk to reach their homes because of the mismanagement and ignorance on part of the governments. It had also been reported by various news channels in places that the workers had to pay for the train fares.
In such circumstances, the focus of the government’s schemes should have been more on the immediate relief measures of such workers through prompt response to their urgent needs of food and shelter. Future policies regarding the generation of 100 days of work through MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), ration to all through ‘One Nation, One Ration’ though sound very positive does not address the immediate loopholes that have been the cause of the various unfortunate incidents to which various migrant workers have fallen prey to.
While the central government launched a relief package, some state governments have walked on more regressive lines. In a recent move by the world’s largest democracy, six states as of now have walked on the path of waiving off labour laws to revive the economy at least for the upcoming 3 years.
The Yogi Adityanath led government of Uttar Pradesh was the first one to announce by removing 35 out of the 38 existing labour laws followed by multiple other states.
The laws that remain intact are Section 5 (about the timely payment of wages) of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936; The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923; The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976; and the Building and Other Construction Worker’s Act 1996 and also the provisions related to the employment of children and women.
This move by the state governments is an infringement upon the basic rights of the workers such as the right to dignified work and wages in safe working conditions, a maximum of 8 work hours per day, etc. The changes in the labour laws allow industries to increase the workday to 12 hours without any compulsory overtime payments and no restrictions on hiring and firing. Workers no longer have an entitlement to basic sanitation facilities, ideal and safe working conditions.
The daily wage and migrant workers have been the worst affected due to the lockdown. And the recent move by some of the states made it clear that they are also going to be the worst victims of the aftermath of lockdown. Not only have they lost their jobs due to the ongoing crisis but will also have to get back to work under inhumane and exploitative conditions without social security, insurance, pension, and other benefits.
In the post-pandemic world, there is a high probability that they will be exploited in as many ways as possible by the employers as they will have no option but to give in to earn their livelihoods. This move can be a case of Human Rights Violation as our Indian Judiciary itself recognizes that paying workers below the threshold of minimum wages can lead to a situation of bondage. The rights of the workers to dignified employment is a human right that various state governments are taking away in the name of strengthening the foundations of the economy.
COVID-19 has revealed the stark realities of the mismanagement on part of the government and has shown us how the neoliberal policy of increasing the role of the market isn’t a sustainable practice. For us to prepare for an economically viable and sustainable life post-pandemic, coherence in the policy measures along with increasing public investment in the basic infrastructural facilities such as health and research is the need of the hour.
While the Indian government has been trying to introduce various measures to strengthen the economy post COVID, the policies have been limited and somewhat in a disarray. Consistency needs to be maintained between the policies introduced by the states and the central government.
Greater government intervention in essential services such as sanitation facilities (proper drainage especially in the slums), primary health care (increased outdoor check up facilities, regular health camps especially in rural areas), and research facilities in the medical and technological field for more sustainable lives is required.
The government needs to focus on the education sector from the local to the state level because the loss of jobs and security amidst the pandemic will lead to a large number of school dropouts. In such a scenario, ensuring free education for all through the government-aided schools and public institutions should be a priority.
Market forces do not work efficiently in such sectors because of the limited or no scope of earning profits. Hence, the government needs to stop handing over such facilities to the private sectors through tenders and contracts. Direct intervention by the government and increasing expenditures by the public sector is the only way to ensure safeguard against possible future health, social and economic emergencies.
Returning to normal isn’t the solution when that normal was the problem.