Asia

More step up to help poor hard hit by India's coronavirus lockdown, even as middle class faces uncertainty ahead

NEW DELHI – Mr Mustafa Quraishi, a photographer, drives 100 to 120km every day amid the world’s largest lockdown.

He is one among hundreds of volunteers putting themselves on the front line, distributing food to the very poor who have been hit hardest by India’s three-week lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.

The 40-year-old fills the back of his Isuzu truck – a vehicle that his friends joke has finally come in useful – with around 1,000 packets of food prepared by private kitchens on each trip.

He makes multiple rounds to provide lunch and dinner to the poor, who live invisibly amid pockets of great affluence in Gurugram, a financial and technology hub dotted with high rise office buildings and luxury condominiums.

The photographer is always accompanied by a policeman to prevent mobs of hungry people making a mad dash for the food and water.

“A lady who went to distribute food packets without a policeman was mobbed by some 200 hungry people the other day. She just about managed to drive away from the situation,” said Mr Quraishi, who runs Q&M Visuals, a photography firm.

He is part of a pool of around 400 dedicated volunteers in an initiative where the local administration, police, non-profits, private individuals and private companies have come together to help the poor with cooked meals and dry provisions, procuring masks and generally spreading awareness on measures like social distancing.

“When the lockdown was announced I sat down and thought something had to be done. When someone posted on Facebook asking for volunteers on the second day of the lockdown, I joined,” said Mr Quraishi, whose own work has come to a grinding halt amid the lockdown.

“It (volunteering) just gives me satisfaction that you are doing something worthwhile.”

The lockdown, according to a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), has substantially slowed down the pace of transmission of the infection in the world’s second-most populous country. India would have had 820,000 cases by April 15, but currently has 6,412 confirmed cases with 199 deaths.

Still, the lockdown, which started March 25, has been particularly hard on the poor, who have little or no savings to stock up on essentials at a time of wage disruptions.

The first few days of the lockdown saw an exodus of poor migrant workers from cities – the first and immediate wave of layoffs, unable to pay rent or buy provisions – making a dash on foot for their village homes hundreds of kilometres away in many cases, where, at the least, a roof over their heads was guaranteed.

Some made it back home, others were stopped as the government sealed borders and diverted them to community shelters or back to their locality. Some 28,000 relief camps and shelters have been set up for migrant workers.

MIDDLE-CLASS INDIA STEPS UP

Amid stories of distress among poorer sections, middle-class India, perhaps for the first time, has mobilised in large numbers to help the poor.

This has ranged from distributing food packets to donating money, or even groups of friends or like-minded people setting up temporary kitchens to provide cooked food.

Help from the middle class, combined with those from large and small private companies, came in at a time when the slow-moving bureaucracy in some places was still scrambling to put systems in place to feed the poor.

In places where government implementation has continued to be weak or where categories of the poor fall through the cracks of the system due to lack of documentation, private individuals have continued to try and fill the gaps.

“The middle-class mobilisation is probably borne out of compassion. It is also giving positive direction to the anxiety and panic around (over the virus) It’s a good coping mechanism,” said Dr Sunita Walia, a medical doctor and social activist in the state of Rajasthan, who along with around 50 friends, set up a kitchen to cook food for the poor.

As government help has expanded with food and cash transfers, she and her group of friends have shut down the kitchen and are now distributing rice and other provisions to people who remain ineligible for any government benefits.

“A lot of people have come up with their own programmes. Everybody is trying,” she said.

LACK OF ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER

Even as multiple efforts are on to feed and provide a safety net for the poor, they still remain disadvantaged when it comes to safeguarding themselves against the highly contagious virus. Clean water remains a distant dream for millions of poor Indians.

Alarm bells went off when a man died of coronavirus in Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum in the financial capital of Mumbai. Another 21 cases have emerged from the slum, where even something as basic as repeated washing of hands, key to tackling the virus, is a near impossibility.

More than 163 million people in India do not have access to clean water, the highest in the world, according to a study by WaterAid, a global advocacy group on water and sanitation.

In many cities, people, especially the poorer ones, live in crammed informal settlements with either a limited or no access to piped water. They rely on tankers and borewells instead for their limited supply and depend on shared public toilets, leaving them particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of an infectious disease.

“Will they use whatever little water is available to them for daily purposes such as drinking, cooking and bathing, or washing hands repeatedly?” said Mr Samrat Basak, the director of the Urban Water Programme at World Resources Institute India. “In such cases, washing hands becomes a luxury.”

ECONOMIC IMPACT

As the poor struggle for basics like water and food, middle- and upper-class Indians remain safely ensconced in their homes, but are not immune to worries about jobs and businesses.

The lockdown has shut down all economic activity in the country. Supply chains, even for essential commodities, have been disrupted, with reports of migrant truck drivers leaving their trucks at state borders or factories and fleeing to their home villages, fearful of the spread of the virus and of police action to enforce the lockdown.

Already, some firms have announced salary cuts, and job losses are expected in the coming weeks across sectors.

The Indian Express newspaper has announced 10 to 30 per cent cut in salaries, with the top bosses taking a 100 per cent salary cut to help the newspaper tide over the lockdown period.

Vendors in many places are refusing to pick up newspapers and people are cancelling subscriptions amid fears that the highly contagious virus survives on newsprint and can be spread on contact.

A poll of 200 chief executive officers by industry body Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) showed the majority expect a sharp fall in demand and revenue, with 32 per cent forecasting job cuts in the range of 15 to 30 per cent.

“Those working in the private sector face pay cuts, as every company will be looking to see where to cut costs by cutting down on salaries. For instance, import-export has come to a halt, so people working in some firms are being paid 10 per cent of their salary as a token,” said Mr Kris Lakshmikanth, founder and chief executive of The Head Hunters India, a boutique executive search firm.

“My feeling is job cuts will start taking place from the end of April. Initially, it will not be openly done but people would be told informally to look out for jobs. The middle class are definitely not sure what will happen to them.”

WHAT NEXT?

The lockdown is seen to have bought time for India to put systems in place to tackle the virus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hinted at an extension of the lockdown beyond April 14 amid predictions that the South Asian country’s infection peak in some parts will come by the end of April or in the first two weeks of May.

Already, the state of Odisha has announced it will extend the lockdown till April 30 even as Mr Modi asked states to look into staggered lifting of restrictions.

State governments have also started sealing off outbreak hot spots, disallowing people from stepping out of their houses even for essential items.

“We will continue to focus on ‘over-preparedness’ at the district level, and continued focus on surveillance, contact tracing and patient management. This includes enhancing supply of isolation beds, ICU beds, ventilator and PPE sets,” said a senior official from the Ministry of External Affairs Vikas Swarup.

Experts said that in the next phase, irrespective of the lockdown, India has to focus on ramping up testing, quickly identifying cases and strengthening health facilities.

The government has been working in this direction but many believe India still doesn’t have a complete picture of the virus since testing rates have been low.

India is testing 18,000 people every day in a population of 1.3 billion people, and is looking to ramp up testing to 100,000.

“Testing is the first priority, second is scientific tracing and treatment. We need to augment our secondary healthcare system, which is the district hospitals. Because 80 per cent (of future cases) won’t require specialised care but just temperature control and fever management,” said Dr Binod Kumar Patro from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bhubaneswar.

“So that the load on our main hospitals is less and they can focus on the very ill. This is also an opportunity for us to augment our healthcare system.”

Among those who have been left behind in cities, the only thought at this point is to somehow go home. Ms Noor Jehan from the state of West Bengal has not seen her three-year-old daughter in two years. The child lives with Ms Noor’s mother in a village in West Bengal, sustained by her earnings as a maid to four homes in Gurugram.

“I just want to go home and see my child. I just can’t sleep at night and I am having a lot of anxiety,” she said from her one-room place.

“Once the lockdown is lifted, I am going home.”

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