Empty streets of Bangalore during the lockdown. Photo: Flickr/Nicolas Mirguet Empty streets of Bangalore during the lockdown. Photo: Flickr/Nicolas Mirguet

With no access to state support, healthcare or testing, India’s working and poor people have been completely abandoned by the government during the lockdown

On 25 March, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his address to the nation. In the wake of the rapid spread of coronavirus, he announced a lockdown of the entire nation, except for some essential services, for 21 days. Thus 1.3 billion people were decreed to stay home to break the chain of transmission. This was done without properly analysing the intricacies and impact of this massive lockdown by the government, which is presenting a severe challenge to working people, precarious labourers, daily wage labourers, beggars, nomads, the disabled and homeless in carrying out their daily livelihood for survival.

It has unleashed complete chaos across the country and has been hindering many essential services. The brutal treatment by the police of the poor people of the country has left them in complete dismay and dire straits. For a small section of society, which is rich and able, this lockdown is unlikely to make a significant difference in the way they live. However, for a large section of Indian people, this lockdown comes as a double crisis of health insecurity and economic nightmare.

Two days later, a relief package of Rs 1.7 trillion (£18bn) was announced by the ministry of finance of India, which is not showing any immediate effect on the ground. The public was extremely disappointed with the kind of help that was announced amid this global health crisis and economic emergency. What percentage of the relief package will actually be utilised to help people is to be seen. Other nations worldwide have also announced similar packages, though more in terms of magnitude and scope.

Things could have been a little better if the government was clear in its planning and instructions to the responsible authorities. However, the government has failed terribly in this. The PM did not give any clear assurances to the citizens of India, which led to a panic amongst distressed classes and they decided to leave the big cities, as survival without work is not possible. A long queue of people can be seen heading back to their native towns on foot. And at the same time, several videos of police brutality against these people have also surfaced, which not only again exposes the insensibility of police, but also the failure of the government in instructing them properly. It seems as if the government was not bothered about these people when they were deliberating this lockdown.

Displaced workers and police brutality

Internally migrated labourers, working in different cities, have lost the opportunity to earn their daily wages and in most cases, their jobs entirely. They have no choice but to return to their hometowns. These labourers are returning without any transport facilities provided by the government. Train and bus services have been abruptly suspended with extremely short notice which has left workers stranded around railway stations and bus terminals all over the megacities of India. They have to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes with their small kids and old parents without having adequate food and with only a few hundred rupees in their pockets.

These are the people facing harassment and brutality at the hands of the Indian police. Under the guise of implementing the lockdown, the police have been constantly harassing these workers and demanding bribes instead of protecting them or guiding them so that they could reach to their homes safely. Some of these people are wandering around the cities or its periphery in search of food, water, shelter, etc.

Now the already uncertain future of these labourers is in complete darkness. They have hardly any idea how they will feed their families in the coming months or what kind of work they will be getting. The government is yet to come up with any feasible plan to ensure and guarantee socio-economic security to the poorest people in this time of crisis and going forward.

The government has not paid any sincere heed towards the plight of precarious labour which shows its inhuman and insensitive attitude towards the impoverished people of the country. In the week since the lockdown announcement, people could still be seen migrating in large numbers from cities to villages without any financial support from the government. There is no indication that the Rs 1.7tn relief package is going to be used to help the most vulnerable in society.

Will the government even arrange testing facilities for them? On one hand, the government is arranging to evacuate rich citizens trapped in various foreign countries to India and on the other, they have failed to arrange any special transport facilities, even after a week of lockdown, for the internally migrated daily wagers, many of whom will have voted for them in the election.

People working in essential services are also having a hard time. Even giant grocery retailers like BigBasket and Groffers had to go offline because of the police crackdown. Many retailers and wholesalers could not reach their respective sabzi mandi (fruit and vegetable market), leaving the produce to rot. Truck drivers are being harassed by police when they return with empty trucks. If the lockdown continues for an extended period, it may lead to a shortage of fruits, vegetables and other essential products in the market and may cause rapid inflation in food prices, which has already begun.

It’s time the government accepts total accountability and installs a task force on the ground to take care of stranded poor people and daily wage workers instead of abdicating all its responsibilities to some NGOs and local organisations or civil society. Charity has now become the only life support option for these stranded poor people across the country.

Inadequate healthcare and lack of testing

Due to the Corona-Crisis, people seem to have forgotten other diseases; critical and also still common. A good number of hospitals have now closed their outpatient departments. Even where they haven’t, there is now no transport, and India’s existing ambulance service is all but useless. How are people supposed to get themselves treated for illnesses other than coronavirus? The government should have, from the onset, informed people about how to get medical facilities in case of emergencies unrelated to Covid19. It is again the poorest in society who are hurt the most.

The World Health Organization has appealed all the countries to expand their testing capacities as much as possible so that affected people can immediately be quarantined and treated which could curb transmission rates at large scale. India is struggling with its inadequate health structure and lack of health workers and has decided to test only a limited number of people; mainly those people who have travelled from affected countries or who have come in contact with a confirmed case and are showing symptoms after two weeks of quarantine. This is a strategic error which has ignored the testing of coronavirus affected people who are asymptomatic and people that haven’t travelled but may be showing symptoms. This could cause the spread of the disease at a larger scale.

The crisis is endemic to capitalism

Where Spain, Ireland, New Zealand and Italy are nationalising their healthcare system to fight the coronavirus more effectively, the Indian government has put all the responsibility to curb this pandemic on the shoulders of common citizens alone. This epidemic has proved that the capitalist model cannot guarantee equal access to essential needs like health, education and shelter to every person.

While centrally planned countries like Cuba and China have facilitated health aid to Italy and other affected countries by sending doctors and equipment, the US on the other hand, has ignored the appeal of the international community to remove the sanctions imposed on Iran, so that they can import medical products and other things needed at this moment.

The current health crisis should not be viewed as some unique or unexpected exogenous crisis but it is very much endogenous to the protracted structural crisis of capitalism along with the huge persistent income inequality, unemployment, inaccessibility to proper health care by the working class, inaccessible quality education, climate change etc. Why are we facing a lack of hospital and health facilities? The answer lies in the very nature of capitalism which hasn’t placed value in protecting the lives of working and impoverished people.

In the midst of this global crisis, it’s easy to forget just how many people have been unnecessarily dying before the pandemic broke out. A rough estimate suggests that at least 2,000 people die of hunger every day. According to the WHO, there are about 25 deaths an hour reported in India due to TB. Around 350 people commit suicide each day. And there are easily treatable diseases like Dengue, Malaria and various forms of Diarrhoea, which a good number of people are unable to get treated for.

These deaths are always presented as inevitable, but they are anything but. People defending the status quo often say that everything cannot be perfect, but this lack of perfection seems to only exist for the working class and impoverished.

Where we go now

This crisis has exposed the health system of the whole world and how it is unable to deal with a pandemic of this magnitude. There are apparently no spaces in the hospitals anymore for anyone even in the developed countries. The same is feared in India as well.

We have to ensure that the economically weaker section of society is not betrayed and they get what they deserve. In this time of lockdown, we must press and make the government accept demands of complete nationalisation of the health and education system. And along with that also ensure that a larger portion of the budget is spent on public health, education and sanitisation.

We should now stop the market intervening in our critical services like health and education. The workers, homeless, impoverished, disabled and the sick should resolve to not end this lockdown until these demands are met. The middle class and other less affected people of the Indian society, who have the privilege to read this article, should also join the distressed classes in their struggle.

This crisis is a test for the government which won the election with a bigger majority just last year. It has proved that its primary interest is not in protecting people, but allowing a group of capitalists to exploit the people during the boom period and socialise the loss and provide bailout packages for them in the time of crisis.

Sushant is an assistant professor of economics at BN Mandal University and Utpal is an independent research scholar