As of March 24, midnight, India has been in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite the world’s shock at the entire nation being ordered to quarantine, the lockdown is necessary. We have witnessed Western healthcare systems struggling to keep up with the influx of patients. India, with 1.3 billion people and extremely poor health infrastructure, would be decimated by the contagion.
The lockdown is a preventative measure which needed to be complemented by state support to make the populace adhere to social distancing out of consent, rather than fear of prosecution.
Instead, the state has provided an economic relief package — several days after the lockdown announcement — worth less than 1 per cent of GDP. Its meagreness fails to transfer the much-needed income into the pockets of the migrating working sector — those most affected by the lockdown. For them, the continued operation of essential stores is meaningless when the money isn’t there.
The fanfare of the lockdown came with no income support, triggering mass panic. Headlines have been dominated by pictures of migrant labourers making journeys back to their villages on foot. It is undeniable proof of the authorities’ lack of foresight.
The migrant crisis could have been easily predicted. It is currently post-harvest season, so people migrate to the cities in search of more income. With the lockdown stopping income flow, many have chosen to return home to families where there is stronger social support.
According to Bhupesh Baghel, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, the states were not taken into confidence regarding the lockdown. It was simply commanded by the centre, and the states had to scramble (just like regular people rushing to stockpile) to make provisions. Now it’s too late. We are realising that the indignity migrants are facing by having to travel on foot — with no outlets to rest and buy food on the way — could have been entirely avoided.
The episode just goes to show that in a large democracy such as India, authoritarian manoeuvres will backfire. It seems that the Modi administration has learnt no lessons from demonetisation, another authoritarian move that brought much hardship, with little to no pay-off.
The wider working class has also been deeply troubled. Just days into the lockdown, the class divide in Indian society has never been more unmistakable.
Those in the informal economy are dependent on their employers’ magnanimity for paid leave. Their homes are breeding grounds for the virus, so ‘staying home’ will likely only ensure that the virus is not transmitted to the upper echelons of society. With little disposable income, they’re certain that starvation will get them before the virus does.
In stark contrast, India’s bourgeoisie have been swapping recipes and tips for mental wellbeing. There are jokes about struggling with chores while domestic help is unavailable. There are worries about the stock market and investments. In a mere four hours before the lockdown was put in place, they used their disposable incomes to clear the supermarket shelves.
There is complacence and apathy about this divide because the divide has been beneficial, until now. After all, much of the comforts that the upper- and middle-classes take for granted are derived from the labour of daily wage earners — the construction workers, the vendors, the janitors, the waiters, the hairdressers, the plumbers and many more.
Now that the insecurities experienced by the working class are jeopardising the outbreak response, one can only hope that the privileged and the ruling elites will advocate and implement greater protections for those in the informal economy. It must be stressed that social distancing remains a luxury choice for those who cannot secure a livelihood without interacting with one another in close proximity.
Kerala has been taking action since January 30, when the first case of Covid-19 was detected. The list of favourable actions is substantial. Frequent testing, rigorous contract tracing, previous crisis experience, frank communication with the public and effective economic relief provisions — but I am most struck by the humaneness. The state knows that the polity are not subjects to be ordered about, and that their security and trust is crucial to overcoming this, and any other crisis.
Ultimately, India’s lockdown challenges can be attributed to the no-warning blanket policy being invoked in a nation with a federalist structure of governance. Had the central government coordinated the lockdown intent with each state government, the response and impact would have been smoother and the pandemonium smaller.
It seems that India watched the rest of world and acted with haste against the outbreak. But this haste is also a result of disorganisation. Time will tell how much it will cost the nation.