As India becomes the third nation after the United States and Brazil to hit that milestone, it is the country’s marginalized who are suffering the most from the devastating economic toll of lockdowns and job losses.
When Amitabh Bachchan tested positive for Covid-19 last weekend, for example, the Bollywood legend was immediately admitted to an isolation unit at Mumbai’s top Nanavati Hospital, despite having mild symptoms.
Meanwhile across India, critically ill virus patients are being turned away from public and private hospitals for lack of beds, staff and equipment, as healthcare systems buckle under the pressure of the escalating pandemic.
Bachchan’s treatment threw into sharp relief India’s stark wealth divide — which the coronavirus pandemic has at times made a matter of life or death.
While more than 270 million people across India were able to climb out of poverty between 2006 and 2016, the country remains one of the world’s most unequal, with the top 10% of the population holding 77% of the total national wealth — and that gap only continues to widen, according to Oxfam.
As well as unequal access to healthcare, for those who live shoulder to shoulder in overcrowded urban slums — about 74 million people — social distancing is impossible. There is little running water or sanitation, putting them at greater risk of contacting the virus.
While India’s rich can buy better healthcare and isolate more easily, with the country’s borders closed and international flights mostly canceled, they too have to stay and face the crisis.
As the pandemic holds up a mirror up to society, experts say India’s rich need to evaluate how the country depends on and treats informal laborers who make up the majority of the country’s workforce.
Everything from employment rights, access to good education and health care and welfare is suddenly under the microscope.
About 60% of India’s 1.3 billion people are considered poor, with about 21% surviving on $2 a day. They often work as unskilled or daily-wage laborers in various industries such as farming or construction. In major cities, they make up a workforce of rickshaw pullers, street and drain cleaners, vegetable sellers, delivery boys, and domestic workers.
“Nine out of ten people are in informal work and it’s not that we don’t see them,” said Harsh Mander, an Indian human rights activist and author. “They’re everywhere and yet we never look at them as human beings, we look them as labor that is available at cheap and affordable prices to make our lives comfortable.”
When the help stops
Because of the lockdown, for the first time many middle and upper class Indians, who rely on an army of maids, cooks, cleaners, drivers and gardeners, are having to cook their own food, clean their own houses, and take out their own trash.
“Our reliance is huge, every household, even a middle class household, has a maid coming to clean utensils, or to wash clothes, every single day of the year,” said Sayli Udas-Mankikar, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai. “You can ask any Indian today and they will say I’m struggling with housework because you have never done that.”
Some say the lockdown has given them a new appreciation for the domestic help they say they often took for granted.
“I’ve started to realize and appreciate the privilege I have compared to others more. Especially when my area (in Delhi) was in a containment zone and I only had access to basic things like fruits and vegetables, in addition to other essentials,” said Ankita Dasgupta, who works in public relations for a music streaming service in Mumbai.
Vedika Agarwal, founder of Chennai-based youth and education non-profit organization Yein Udaan, said the lockdowns have forced some people to open their eyes” to the struggles of those that do the menial tasks that keep society ticking, from the street sweepers, drain and sewer cleaners, delivery boys, to those who work in their houses every day.
“We think we know poverty simply because we interact with them or we understand their struggles because we’re in close contact with them. But the lockdown and all the repercussions has shed light on the diverse struggles families actually face every single day of their lives,” she said.
On Friday, over 400 million people in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Karantaka’s capital city Bengaluru re-entered lockdown conditions after a rise in Covid-19 cases.
While their employers can ride out lockdowns by watching Netflix in air-conditioned apartments or gated houses, the domestic workers struggled to socially distant in nearby informal housing or slums. Udas-Mankikar said they are mostly employed on verbal contracts and there is little to no social security available to them.
Archan Ghose, a graphic designer in New Delhi, said that some daily workers felt they couldn’t isolate and continued to work, as they “need the salaries that they get from two or three households to run their own homes and look after their family.”
“They don’t have a choice, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid,” Ghose said.
However, not every employer has been so empathetic.
Aparna Sanyal, 38, is a domestic worker from West Bengal. She supports her husband and son by cleaning and cooking in several houses in New Delhi but was forced to stop during the three-month lockdown. Because their income dried up, Sanyal said she borrowed money to pay her $73 monthly rent and $22 electricity bill for three months.
“In the news they had said that (even if we cannot go to work during the lockdown) our employers should pay us salary, but my employers did not pay me, however, I cannot fight them,” she said.
Since her husband also lost his job, the family’s income depended on her. “My household cannot function like this without income,” she said.
When many people like Sanyal are worrying about paying rent, Shreya Adhikari, who works as a content writer in the capital, said she is “surprised” that the people who have complained about the lockdown the loudest are those who are “educated, well-read and well-informed.”
A game that’s changing attitudes
In the online game “Survive Covid,” players assume the role of a housemaid who must make it through a 21-day lockdown, while feeding her family without running out of money — or getting coronavirus.
Agarwal, the Chennai-based NGO founder, designed the game, with technology firm XR Labs, to give her peers empathy for the challenges facing poor families in the pandemic. So far, more than 200,000 people have played.
Decisions that have to be made include: should I use the finite water supply to clean the dishes instead of regularly washing my hands and increasing the risk of infection? Should I spend money on a Covid-19 test for a sick relative and deplete my savings, leaving my children at risk of going hungry?
“It was about giving them a voice and amplifying a voice that was not being heard,” Agarwal said, adding that these are choices faced every day by the poor and marginalized.
She said that people don’t think about “what if a fan broke in this house, how would they survive the summer?” During the pandemic, while the private schools had capacity to switch to online learning, Agarwal said government schools struggled to provide basic schooling. Many families couldn’t afford the technology for online learning, with some not having reliable access to the internet, or even electricity.
“People didn’t realize that,” said Agarwal. “A lot reached out and said, This is such an eye opener.”
Agarwal, who works with low-income families, said many distressed parents were anxious about where their next meal would come from, how they would pay rent without a job, all while keeping safe from the virus.
She said one woman called her scared for her life because she was locked down with her abusive, alcoholic husband who was going through withdrawal symptoms. “The only way she thought to help was to take their lives. It was very traumatizing and I think that is an experience that a lot of women have faced,” she said.
Srivatsan Jayasankar, co-creator of the game and co-founder and CEO of XR Labs, said the contrast was stark between those concerns and the ones his friends had — they complained when they couldn’t travel or go out to restaurants because of the lockdowns.
“We wanted to highlight privileges that people have while staying home, their basic necessities completely taken care while a large section of the community were actually still struggling to get their basic needs met,” Jayasankar said.
Agarwal and Jayasankar say they are amazed by the positive reaction to the game and hope that it moves people to help those less fortunate. The game includes an option to donate, and Agarwal said they have so far raised more than INR 500,000 ($6,600), which goes toward providing grocery, sanitation and educational kits to marginalized families in Tamil Nadu state.
‘A heartbeat from hunger’
There are still people in India who are a “heartbeat from hunger,” said Mander the human rights activist, and more where one illness or catastrophe can push them back into poverty.
He said the lockdown was imposed a with little thought for the nation’s poor.
“When this catastrophe hit us, what was revealed was how willing we were to completely abandon them. The protections of the lockdown could never extend to the poor. To stay at home, you have to first have a home and one where you can socially distance, where you have running water and a job you can do from home,” he said.
There are already signs the economic impacts from the pandemic are undoing some of the development India has made in recent years in alleviating poverty, according to Agarwal. She said there is evidence that a large percentage of girls in low-income houses won’t go back to school because of the compounding effects of the lockdown.
“There is so much uncertainty about how were going to bring those girls back to school when food is going to be the need of the hour and parents are not going to prioritize schooling,” she said.
OFR’s Udas-Mankikar said she believes the pandemic has “already pushed us back a few years.”
When lockdown was announced, millions of migrant workers joined a mass exodus, leaving the cities to return to their villages, many of them on foot. Udas-Mankikar said in Mumbai, many of those who remained have not yet returned to work.
“The big question mark is what happens to them? Very often I think about what happened to the vegetable vendor who was sitting outside my house? What has happened to the woman who picks up the trash from outside my house, I wonder where she is?” said Udas-Mankikar. “I am really worried about the jobs, (people) can go a few months but what about after that?”
Last month, the United Nations children fund (UNICEF) said an additional 120 million children in South Asia could be pushed into poverty due to coronavirus lockdowns and the longer-term impact of the economic crisis. Access to schools, nutrition planning, a pause in vaccination programs and heightened risk of abuse under lockdown are some of the issues that children across South Asia are facing and will continue to face in the coming months, said the report.
One positive that Udas-Mankikar sees is a “larger thinking going on in peoples minds.”
“Because somewhere the value of this class is really being recognized, at least among the people who are employing them. It’s gone beyond only thinking of them as people living in informal housing,” says Udas-Mankikar.
Agarwal said she’s seen more people stepping up, by donating money or volunteering to relief initiatives across the country that help ensure families are fed or have access to sanitation supplies.
“A lot of people have been saying, Look if I have the capacity, why not help someone who has literally built my economy, or has built the home I’m living in, or services the home I live in daily — (the pandemic has) definitely highlighted the differences,” she said.