The number of cases and deaths in India due to COVID-19 continues to increase and the government is taking stricter measures each day to contain the spread. It started with encouragement of hand washing and social distancing, stay at home measures, self-imposed curfews/quarantines on people who have returned from abroad.
Movie halls, restaurants and malls were closed. International flights were cancelled. Schools and colleges were shut and many companies encouraged their employees to work from home. This was followed by one-day janta curfew and closure of all but essential services. Many states imposed Sec 144. Eighty districts are under complete lockdown, which means only essential goods and services are available. On 24th March, Prime Minister imposed a lockdown on entire country for three weeks. This is essential for stopping the rapid spread of virus and containing what can be a very high fatality rate in a densely populated country like India.
The national capital Delhi is particularly susceptible. Delhi Epidemic Diseases, COVID-19 Regulations, 2020 under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 for the prevention and containment of COVID-19 declare that save essential services like law and order, police, health, fire, fair price shop and electricity, telecom, postal services, food and pharma etc. everything else will be shut down. Only DTC buses are to operate at a reduced 25 percent capacity, all domestic and international flights are to be suspended, religious places closed down and congregation of more than 5 persons is strictly punishable by law.
This is probably the first time in the history of independent India that such measures have been imposed for a public health emergency. Social distancing will be impossible for millions living in slums. Co dependency in slums and poorer neighborhoods is high and most arrangements are informal. Home deliveries or even stocking up on several months of rations cannot work for people living on meager daily wages. The lockdown has already started impacting the livelihoods of daily wage earners like rickshaw pullers, auto drivers, taxi drivers, construction workers, domestic workers, plumbers, electricians etc. Waiters, staff in malls and offices, informal workers in hotels and hospitality sectors, porters at stations and airports, workers like decorators and caterers associated with wedding industry have also been impacted. Before the ban on trains came into affect, thousands of informal workers packed into trains to go home to safety of their villages, risking infections and becoming possible carriers for transmitting infections to rural poor.
The poor have also been unable to get hold of sanitizers, masks and soaps or other disinfectants. Moreover their risk of transmission and infection is particularly high given closer proximity that people are forced to live in and fewer urban amenities like access to clean water. Many are already vulnerable given their compromised health due to pollution, malnutrition, low levels of care available, chronic diseases and large number of infectious diseases like tuberculosis or other bacterial infections that run unchecked as a result of lack of sanitation facilities and contaminated food and water.
The poor are already spending majority of their income on out of pocket health healthcare expenses. Since public health care is poor, inadequate and often overburdened many access healthcare privately. Even private health care is inequitable towards the poor. Costs of diagnostics and medicines are also out of reach. The poor are thus either discouraged from seeking treatment at all (or may end up opting for quacks and unproven, alternate medicines) or seek treatment very late when they are already quite unwell. In this scenario they are most likely to suffer from COVID symptoms and most likely to have higher fatality rate.
Moreover, if hoarding of food and other basic necessities leads to shortage of stocks, the poor are likely to be hit most. Keeping this is mind Delhi Chief Minister, Kejriwal announced a relief package – pensions, free rations with 50% more quantity than normal entitlements, to 72 lakh beneficiaries. Congress President Sonia Gandhi in a letter to the Prime Minister urged him to advice the State Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Boards to roll out emergency welfare measures, particularly wage support, to construction workers who are in distress. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath said that the state government will give lakhs of daily wage labourers and construction workers Rs 1,000 per month to meet their needs.
Rajasthan government, which is in complete lockdown due to high number of cases, has announced paid leaves and food delivery for factory and daily wage workers in addition to early disbursal of social security pensions. Chhattisgarh government has waived electricity bills and made arrangements for advance ration to BPL card holders.
These measures, while timely and helpful, might not fully cushion the economic impact of the crisis. If the economy doesn’t recover, more are likely to lose jobs. The support by state and private employers will be essential in this respect.