The Coronavirus scare poses a huge challenge to India’s poor
One way out is to use all the institutional buildings that have been vacated in the wake of the coronavirus scare to house the poor. This can include all municipal schools and central and state government educational institutions – schools, colleges, and universities.
Photographs of poor migrants deciding to walk back to their villages, often carrying their small children on their shoulders, have begun doing the rounds ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day, nationwide, lockdown a few days ago.
The containment of the spread of the coronavirus was necessary, and a three-week lockdown may indeed help break the chain of transmission.
However, it seems to have caught migrants, the poor, and also the civil administration in many parts of India by surprise.
It could perhaps have been planned better. A lockdown need not follow the demonetisation timetable, with the Prime Minister addressing the nation at 8 pm sharp and ordering a lockdown with only a four-hour window. It need not always be at 8 pm and midnight.
Perhaps people should have been given a day or two to provision for the lockdown. This was necessary, as there have been instances where the police have resorted to beating up people who have ventured out of their homes in search of supplies.
Having said that, a well-planned shutdown would be better than not going in for a shutdown at all, as some have suggested. For, given the mismatch between India’s density of population and health infrastructure, the country can counter the pandemic best by flattening the curve early. If infections indeed rise exponentially, we may face serious challenges that could overwhelm our capacities, spark panic, and entail huge human costs.
The challenges ahead
India, given its population and poverty levels, faces not one but two problems, and is different from Australia or the United Kingdom in this crucial sense. This is apart from the economic damage the whole world will suffer.
In India, social distancing is a must to contain the spread of the virus, which may infect as many as 1000 people in a day or two, as per official figures that are based on limited testing. The lockdown aims at containment or breaking the chain, as it were.
But there is a problem not related to the virus that the country will face in these three weeks, and even beyond them if the lockdown is longer.
The problem is: how do poor people get by during the lockdown? Think of construction workers, rickshaw pullers, and the like. Once panic sets in – as it already has – and they feel stranded without work, they will start walking home hundreds of kilometres away to escape running short of essential supplies.
This puts them at great risk. Their children have to brave the elements on the way home. Safe food and water are not assured. They may have to encounter thieves and anti-social elements on the way.
If you transport them to their villages via trains and buses, the lockdown fails, as there would be overflowing trains and buses ferrying people amid a lockdown. There will be possibilities of an infected person carrying the virus home.
The Uttar Pradesh government, meanwhile, pressed buses into service for carrying migrant workers to their homes from the Delhi-UP border, though there are dangers involved in this.
The ways out
What, in other words, are the options governments have?
If they transport essential supplies to the slums and other such places, people will congregate the moment the supplies come in and again break the rules of social distancing.
One way out is to use all the institutional buildings that have been vacated in the wake of the coronavirus scare. This can include all municipal schools and central and state government educational institutions – schools, colleges, and universities. Fortunately, the new academic session is still four months away, which is enough time to use these facilities and then disinfect them.
Many of these institutions have sprawling campuses, large grounds, canteens, medical facilities, and the like.
While entering these campuses, people can be screened for symptoms like fever and then lodged in. With the deployment of the civil administration, the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and, if need be, the army, food packets prepared by the state governments, and perhaps the Indian Railways, can be supplied to migrant labourers in these campuses.
Medicines can also be made available to them.
In Delhi, the campuses of schools, Delhi University, with its colleges, and universities like Jamia Millia Islamia and JNU can house lakhs of migrant workers.
With food packets coming to each mess, officials can ensure that people come out one by one – and not crowd the mess – and take their food packets back to where they sleep.
Governments have the choice of using the Railways and state road transport corporations to take people back to their villages, but there are high chances of the infection being spread to the hinterland and deepening the risks posed by the pandemic. The numbers of migrant workers in India are huge, and mass transportation may not be the answer.
If need be, religious places that are shut down can also be used to house people, with the permission of the communities concerned.
The lockdown can also be used for more aggressive testing – many suspected cases can be identified even as they are being taken to their temporary accommodations – and stadiums and playgrounds, apart from hospitals themselves, can be converted into quarantine and isolation facilities with some tweaking.
As of now, the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan has asked regional offices of KVS that on receipt of any request from any defence authority or the district administration, classrooms of Kendriya Vidyalayas be turned into temporary facilities to house suspected coronavirus patients.
The battle for India is two-fold: containing the pandemic through lockdowns, aggressive testing, isolation facilities and adequate numbers of ventilators, and offering supplies to the poor at safe places. Of course, the economy will take a hit and the government will have to devise ways to minimise the adverse impact. The RBI has already taken some steps to mitigate the immediate suffering of people.
However, the task is a herculean one and failure is fraught with serious risks.