Last week, a villager, Mukesh Mandal, 30, decided to sell his phone. He used to work as a house painter before the coronavirus lockdown, now entering its fifth week in India, made it impossible to find jobs. With the 2,500 rupees he got from the pawned phone, he bought a fan and some sacks of grain. He handed over the rest of the money to his wife, Poonam. A day later, he strung a cloth around a bamboo pole and hanged himself.
“It was getting very difficult to put food on the table,” Mandal’s father-in-law told me, as he hobbled with the support of a stick through the mud-filled alley of his neighborhood.
India’s strictly enforced nationwide lockdown seems to be working against the spread of covid-19. Despite concerns about a lack of testing, India has been able to test 211 persons for every 1 million residents, and experts believe the curve has indeed been flattened. Official figures show a daily addition of about 1,500 positive cases and a spike in recoveries, at 500 a day. India is a definite and welcome outlier in the global fatalities recorded. Current evidence suggests we won’t be the next Italy, Spain or United States.
But India’s poorest citizens are already paying a devastating price — far bigger than the middle class and the wealthy. And instead of gratitude, empathy or even acknowledgement, we have behaved as if they are the problem.
When this extraordinarily difficult moment is behind us, we will have to confront a stark truth: The virus was definitely not the great equalizer. In fact, the crisis exposed the entrenched inequality of our stratified, class-driven country.
How do we explain why planes were deployed to bring stranded Indians home from around the world to a worker who is also desperate to reach his home state but can’t? Especially when he and his co-workers were kept under lock and key, allowed out only at designated hours of the day.
This was the story of Fazulu, from the eastern state of Bengal. I tracked him down to a construction site in Delhi, where he was kept along with many others in a barren field of cement and stone, barricaded by a tin sheet. In their “generosity,” the owners of the infrastructure company had provided some food but no wages. “Let’s say we were to get the virus, who would look after us here?” Fazulu asked. For our interview, my crew and I were also locked inside the complex by guards and told to hand over our footage. After we made our way out, Fazulu called us to say the guards had threatened them. If they ever spoke to the media again, “they’d be thrashed and left on the street.”
Despite official advisories urging small and medium industries to pay their workers full wages through the lockdown and a government order that requires employers to provide migrant workers food and shelter, many live on the brink of hunger. Those who can walk, do. And so the exodus has continued.
In the western state of Rajasthan, a popular tourist destination where migrants power the glamorous textile factories and jewelry production, I met Shabnam, whose two children were back in her village of Bihar. She did not have enough money on her cellphone account to make a call home. “If I am going to die anyway, at least let me meet my family,” she said, her words simmering with rage. Yet, from the same state, chartered buses were organized to ferry middle class students back to their homes in the adjoining state of Uttar Pradesh by its chief minister. Rajasthan’s state government has proposed special trains for migrants but the federal government has not signed on.
On March 31, the government told the Supreme Court there were no longer any migrant workers on the roads. But 22 days later, while driving from the capital to the city of Agra, home to the famed Taj Mahal, I met men, women and children, some as young as 8 years old, carrying sacks of rice on heads too small for the weight. They were laborers who worked in potato farming. Wages had been terminated. Food had run out. Now they were looking at a 10-day walk in the hope of getting home. “We will beg the villagers along the way for rice; we will gather wood, cook one meal and feed our children,” one of them said.
It’s not just India’s 45 million migrant workers who are paying the highest price for the lockdown; it’s also hundreds of thousands of the poor who are battling other diseases and can’t access the public health-care system. Many government hospitals have been converted into covid-19 facilities. In Delhi, I met a pavement dweller with oral cancer who was turned away from a public hospital and told to find another facility. In Aligarh, three hours from the capital, five daughters cremated their father, a poor tea-seller who died after he could not get any medical treatment for tuberculosis. In Agra, where life-size images of President Trump and Melania Trump have still not come down since their February visit, a man died after being denied dialysis treatment because he couldn’t prove he didn’t have the coronavirus.
If the current numbers hold, the lockdown would have been effective and the one-size-fits-all approach will have to be reassessed. India needs to begin opening up again, at least in phases and zones. Many Indians are already suffering greatly. We must keep their pain in mind to design policies that address the public health crisis while mitigating the impact on our most vulnerable fellow citizens.