COVID-19 and the vulnerable

The lockdown has worsened the disadvantages already faced by migrant workers, the urban homeless and such sections

Published - April 26, 2020 12:51 am IST

COVID-19, a “once-in-a-century pandemic”, has thrown into stark relief the intersectional invisible sections of Indian society.

The migrant community, the urban homeless, residents of informal settlements, workers who deal with biomedical waste and landless agricultural labourers are among these sections. The lockdown has intersected with their pre-existing disadvantages, bringing to the fore inequalities, discrimination and anxieties.

Despite the best efforts by the government, given the present uncertain circumstances, it is inevitable that in a diverse country like India, social vulnerabilities and inequalities are bound to erupt alongside the pandemic.

The Economic Survey of India, 2017 estimates nearly 139 million migrants in India, all excluded from urban planning. When it comes to inclusion of the marginalised in broader terms in urban planning policies, the migrant community, including seasonal migrants, are ignored, thereby forcing them to intersectional invisibility. In planning parlance, the urban marginalised means only the marginalised among the permanent residents, not the migrants.

When it comes to the urban migrant workers, the difficulties due to the lockdown have begun to intersect with their existing vulnerabilities. They were ill prepared to stay back or get back to their homes. However, many of them have preferred to go back. With public transport stopped, many have walked mind-boggling distances and the rest remain on the way.

It is imperative that the Union and the State governments set up a special task force and identify large public spaces such as stadiums, public halls and educational institutions to shelter them. Food and medical assistance could be provided through government funds, NGOs and other locally available voluntary groups. This will not only ensure them a dignified stop-gap living but also assure their confinement, which will translate into prevention of possible asymptomatic carriers among them from infecting others. This painful exodus brings in the political compulsion that the urban migrant population cannot be ignored in future urban planning and policy discourses.

When the lockdown is relaxed and the immigrants return, the national government and development agencies should intensify their recognition of the migrants’ rural-urban linkage and focus on their potential in urban areas and a sustainable livelihood in the areas of their origin. It is pertinent that the governments devise specific social protection plans with inclusive policies and provide better access to services and facilities thereby increasing their role in urban poverty reduction.

Urban homeless

It is estimated that in India, 29.4% of the urban people live in informal settlements (formerly called slums) and their condition is just a shade better than the homeless for the fact that they have a roof over their head. However, they suffer from all the vulnerabilities of the homeless, including severe health issues. Most of them live in very small structures that houses a large number of family members and the currently prescribed social distancing norm inside the household is impossible.

The migrant workers and the urban landless form a majority of those who do menial jobs in cities, including the frontline sanitary works of the local bodies. Many of them are Dalits, which is a secondary intersectional burden.

As could be seen during this lockdown, many from the informal settlements continue to do conservancy work such as sweeping and segregating and disposal of waste. The high rate of risk that these workers will get infected is ignored. They will choose financial survival in their compelling trade-off with physical health. Again, in the eyes of agencies, when it comes to the homeless and informal settlers, only the general categories among them count and when it comes to “conservancy work”, it is the overall local body workforce that will come to mind. However in practice, the women, Dalits and the sick among them are forced into intersectional invisibility in spite of their very high physical visibility on the roads and streets.

It is high time that the local bodies’ management rotated their working cycles with paid leave and rest intervals. Adequate supply of PPEs would ensure their safety from infections. NGOs and other voluntary agencies could be roped in to supply grocery and vegetables free of cost to their families. The government could also consider unconditional additional direct cash transfer for a fixed period from the ₹12,300 crore allocated for the Swachh Bharat Mission in the 2020-21 Budget.

The challenges of initiating policy making become more difficult as there is a dearth of reliable health-related data on informal settlements. Moreover, this becomes more complex when COVID-19 intersects with their pre-existing existing systemic and multidimensional vulnerabilities. Those informal settlements might have already had chronic TB patients. When COVID-19 intersects alongside such risks, then their potential for resilience are greatly diminished. In these circumstances, the sudden restrictions imposed on them without addressing their immediate requirements may not be sustainable and might only cause additional hardships. If welfare measures are done at a speed and scale ensuring that the control measures are contextually appropriate, then the widespread transmission could be effectively controlled.

The whole nation clapped in appreciation of the medical fraternity including doctors and nurses who have dedicated their service in the frontline battle against COVID-19. Though it is unfortunate that some of these bravehearts had laid down their lives, there are other heroic workers also in hospitals and clinics. They are the people who collect human waste, clean up post-surgical patients, and remove infectious biomedical waste. A journal article on a study of the management of biomedical waste in a district in Gujarat states that annually 0.33 million tonnes of medical waste is generated in India and 20% of it is hazardous. This article also states that 57% of the ward boys are not trained and do not know about the risk associated with such waste even while they are engaged in removing waste of HIV or Hepatitis B and C patients. If this is the situation during the normal times, then their additional burden comes in when engaged with the same duty during this lockdown, when dealing with the waste of symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers, positive patients under treatment and of course in the movement of mortal remains of the patients who die of the infection. In the eyes of agencies, only the doctors and nurses are in the battle against COVID. This prioritisation pushes the ward boys into intersectional invisibility.

The hospital authorities could ensure that they get nutritious meals and specifically designed PPEs. The authorities in coordination with volunteers and the civil society could reach out to their families in fulfilling their basic needs. The Health Department could consider additional cash incentives that will cover for their family requirements, transport and other vital requirements during the lockdown.

Agricultural labourers

Unlike the urban homeless, informal settlers and the hospital workers who are still at work, the agricultural labourers have lost their livelihood, as the lockdown has brought the entire farm activities and the agricultural supply chain to a grinding halt. The land owners are on the brink of financial breakdown as flowers, fruits, vegetables and more crucially the Rabi crops remain unharvested. Though the government has exempted certain categories from the lockdown, the farming sector is facing an acute dearth of labourers who either have left for their homes or have chosen to remain at home. However most of the labourers remain in this uncertain and trying times with fertilizer-induced chronic upper respiratory infections and their additional burden comes into play in the form of their increased chances of getting infected by the coronavirus.

While voices have begun to be heard in support of the landowners in the mainstream media and in the popular political discourse, the plights of these labourers who have fallen into intersectional invisibility are not brought to the fore. These labourers need additional direct cash transfer to tide over the crisis. If agriculture is the backbone of our country’s economy, then the labour community is the backbone of agriculture. Long-term programmes should be devised for them, taking into consideration their occupational health hazards, welfare of their families, freedom from debt traps and their hazardous handling of toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

All in all, the necessary additional cash transfers that would address immediate needs of the above four vulnerable sections could be raised in innovative ways. As most of the government machinery remains closed during the lockdown, the quantum of motor fuel and the power bills saved could be worked out using mathematical modelling and could be used as feeder funding for direct cash transfer and incentives for the vulnerable. This is also perhaps the best time to invite black money hoarders and those who have illegally invested money in foreign bank accounts for voluntary disclosure and donating money in lieu of long-term benefits.

Finally, the governments could involve social scientists in this battle, as science and technology can do a lot better in combination with the social sciences and humanities in dealing with unprecedented crises such as COVID-19.

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