Workers walk along a platform of the nearly deserted MGR Central Railway station in Chennai, India, March 22 2020. Pictuer: ARUN SANKAR / AFP
Workers walk along a platform of the nearly deserted MGR Central Railway station in Chennai, India, March 22 2020. Pictuer: ARUN SANKAR / AFP

Baby Devi has already lost 80% of her monthly earnings to the spread of the coronavirus — and the worst in India may be yet to come.

The 38-year-old mother of four, who cleans homes for a living, lost jobs with two of her three employers. Like many relatively well-off Indians, they’ve begun social distancing to fight the highly infectious virus.

For Devi, who is now taking home about $0.67 a day, her diminished earnings are as much of a concern as her living conditions. As India races to break the chain of transmission of the illness known as Covid-19, her family — who live in a cramped single room and share a bathroom and toilet with two other households — is among those most at risk.

“The situation has become so difficult,” Devi said by phone from the east of the capital Delhi. “Going out is a problem and staying at home is a problem.”

The quandary facing India’s informal workforce of 450-million people is one of the starkest examples of how social inequality threatens to undermine virus containment efforts about the world. From undocumented minimum-wage workers in the world’s richest postcodes to jobseekers flooding into swelling metropolises, the urban poor often have limited access to health care, no medical insurance and no financial safety net.

Devi’s is the story of more than one-third of India’s workers, part of the informal sector that contributes half of the GDP in Asia’s third-largest economy. The sector employs more than 90% of India’s total workforce — part of the more than 8.8-million households who live in slums spread across urban India.

Most of these men and women work for on average as little as $2 a day as plumbers, house help, garbage collectors, rickshaw pullers and street-side vendors. They don’t have the option to work from home, take time off or avoid public transportation to practice social distancing, which is helping save lives across the globe.

Locked down

Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the nation’s 1.3-billion people to follow a day-long quarantine on Sunday, when his government put in place sweeping lockdowns and transportation curbs in urban areas. All passenger and commuter trains were suspended until at least March 31. By Monday the country had reported 390 cases, including seven deaths. Many states began implementing curfew-like restrictions, including  barring more than five people from assembling in public.

Even before the restrictions came into play, panic and fear were palpable among the daily wage earners who keep India’s cities rolling. Over Friday and Saturday, tens of thousands packed onto trains, risking possible infections in cramped conditions, so they could get back to the relative safety of their villages.

The restrictions will cause a “huge disruption to their livelihoods”, said Rajmohan Panda, additional professor at the Public Health Foundation of India, who has advised the Indian government as well as international organisations such as Unicef and the Gates Foundation. “Without the luxury of social security and insurance, the loss of income even if temporary will also affect hygiene and nutrition, thereby making them more susceptible to the virus.”

‘Everyone is afraid’

For Mohibul Ansari in Mumbai, the fight to feed his five children, who live in the eastern state of Bihar about 1,800km away, got tougher after India’s financial capital went into a virtual lockdown on March 16. The cramped plastics factory he works for, in a corner of a city slum, shut down and three of his roommates went back to their homes in other states.

“Everyone is afraid — there’s a terror that’s spreading,” said Ansari over the phone from Dharavi, the sprawling mini-township once described as Asia’s largest slum. Covering 223h — about the size of Monaco — it is also one of India’s largest cluster of small businesses. “I’ve told my children to be very careful with the money I’ve sent. God help us if any of us falls ill.”

Migrant workers such as Ansari and his family have little to no access to quality medical care. The South Asian nation spent just about $62.72 per person on health care in 2016, according to the World Health Organisation, roughly six times less than China. The federal government’s commitment to raise funding for health to at least 2.5% of GDP by 2025 — up from 1.2% now   is still a long way away.

Cramped living — 120,000 people share 1km² of living space in India’s financial hub, about 12 times the number in New York City — put low-income workers at risk. Suburban trains, the main mode of transportation in Mumbai, carry up to 7.5-million passengers every day, which  is  about equal to the population of Hong Kong.

Cash ban

The disruption of daily life in India reminded many of Modi’s shock decision in November 2016 to scrap 86% of India’s currency. The abrupt disappearance of cash crippled supply chains and led to system-wide job cuts, much as the steps to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus are doing now.

“We know that the relatively small step of demonetisation made life worse for the poorest in India,” said Prabhat Jha, professor at the University of Toronto. “The economic disruption from an uncontrolled Covid-19 pandemic would be very large. Together, the health and economic costs suggests that national and state governments must substantially and quickly ramp up their surveillance and response.”

The southern Kerala state announced 200-billion rupees ($2.7bn) worth of aid, while Uttar Pradesh, home to almost one-fifth of India’s total poor, has announced cash transfers of 1,000 rupees a month to more than 3.5-million day labourers and constructions workers. Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal also announced measures to alleviate financial stress for the poor, including up to 5,000 rupees pension to be paid to 850,000 beneficiaries by April 7, and larger rations for those entitled to food subsidies.

The federal government has yet to announce any measures other than to set up a government committee late last week to examine the matter.

“We understand that the government is doing things to help people,” said Mohammad Sadique, a tour operator in Mumbai’s Dharavi. “But it’s tough not to feel the panic when we have to live in these conditions.”

Bloomberg

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