India's lockdown has disproportionately hurt the country's most vulnerable.
Midway in its battle to ward off the coronavirus pandemic, India's 40-day nationwide lockdown is inadvertently exposing its unequal society and communal friction targeting its minority Muslim community.
As for the outcome of the lockdown itself, contrary to fears, there has been no exponential spike but a steady rise in the number of Covid-19 positive cases.
On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the three-week lockdown the overall positive cases in India stood at 564. By April 14, when it was scheduled to lift, the number of cases had gone up to 10,363. The nationwide closure has since been extended to May 3 with a calibrated opening planned, if there is no spike in new positive cases.
As with most other things, there has been no unanimity on the interpretation of the increase in Covid-19 cases thus far. While it is true that compared to the United States of America or Italy, there has been no exponential jump in positive cases, but it is also true that there has been no flattening of the curve either.
The Indian health ministry claimed that had the lockdown not been declared on March 24, the number of cases would have crossed 800,000. How they arrived at this figure is anyone's guess, but clearly, the government is patting itself on the back for preventing a spike.
Countering this, have been reports doubting whether the Indian figures reflect the whole picture. Some point out that the extent of testing has been minimal, and it's not clear how many cases exist.
Estimates vary from 129 to 199 tested per million in India. South Korea, for instance, has tested 9,812 per million. As is widely acknowledged, there are asymptomatic and paucisymptomatic carriers of Covid-19 virus which spread the virus in the general population, albeit without their own knowledge.
Battling the dilemma whether to continue with the lockdown or to lift it, the Modi government took the mid-path by extending it for a week, until April 20 and then to gradually open up, depending on the local situation.
Positive cases would be notified as red zones while those with no cases will be green zones. The intermediate zones would be coded orange with concomitant restrictions. The lockdown will continue in red zones and be lifted in green zones from Monday.
Easier said than done
On paper, the plan of action seems simple, but in reality, India has been thrown into turmoil over the last three weeks with its massive unorganised labour force including migrant workers, estimated at 30 million, stuck in no man's land unable to work or reach home.
The government which barely gave a lead time of three hours before implementing the lockdown on March 24 appears to have overlooked entirely the plight of the migrant workforce which perpetually crisscrosses hundreds of kilometres across India in search of jobs – especially those from the impoverished northern and eastern states to the more well-off southern and western states.
The migrant labour force is exceptionally crucial for the smooth functioning of several of India's key sectors including agriculture, construction and scores of other vocations including painting, housekeeping, cooking, security and transportation.
In fact, there are an estimated 124 different vocations that the unorganised workforce is involved in, and these form around 93 percent of the total employed in the country.
For a workforce that keeps India ticking, the returns have been abysmal. Though there are laws that exist on paper, in reality, the millions of families working in the informal sector have no state protection and manage either by the goodwill of their employers or use their own innate survival skills to manoeuvre through life.
Living in shantytowns on the margins of India's well-to-do neighbourhoods, their vulnerability has been written about and publicised but rarely have governments done anything substantial to change their lives.
With the lockdown in place, the migrants numbering nearly a million have been pushed around with no shelter and necessities including food. Interim shelters run by the government and private NGOs have had to come to their rescue. Besides this, some 600,000 are estimated to be literally on the streets, walking hundreds of kilometres to their homes.
Contrast this with the Indian government's willingness in organising special aircraft to bring in a few hundred stranded nationals in China, Italy and Iran. While it was a kind gesture, the question being asked is why couldn't the government similarly organise basic bus services to transport migrant workers back to their homes in far-flung villages across the country?
If stark economic inequality has come to the fore, the underlying friction between religious communities has skewed the Covid-19 narrative, which blames the minority Muslim community for the spread of the disease.
The Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi's Nizamuddin from March 13-15 caused a spike in positive corona cases a week later, ostensibly due to a section of infected participants who came from abroad and travelled across the country after the conference. A few hundred new positive cases, therefore, emerged across the country directly linked to this meeting.
For the Hindu religious right, this jump in cases provided enough grist to twist it into a communally-laced narrative. A section of the media and supporters of the Modi government, used the opportunity to trash the Jamaat and blame the Muslim community for the increase in corona positive cases, conveniently neglecting the fact that the overall rise included the disease spread from non-Tablighi sources as well.
Secular groups in the media and elsewhere countered the communally-tainted narrative by pointing out that the Jamaat could not be blamed as it held its conference at a time when India had not yet imposed any lockdown, and there were no restrictions. But the conservative right-wing pro-Hindutva factions continue to spread their version on social media.
The government, unfortunately, has made little effort to douse the communal slant. On the contrary, the health ministry too, directly blamed the Jamaat meet for a jump in Covid-19 cases. Though the police have clarified that it permitted for the Jamaat to hold the March 13 conference, this does not seem to have cut much ice.
The upshot of this incident is that the situation in India, which was already reeling from a rise in communal tensions between sections of the majority Hindu community and the minority Muslims in the last six years, has further worsened.
There have been reports of separate Covid-19 wards in hospitals for members of the two communities in Gujarat, Muslim vegetable vendors not being allowed into Hindu-dominated areas in parts of northern India and attacks on health workers by Muslim residents in a few localities including in the city of Indore.
The balance sheet of the lockdown is therefore at best, mixed, and at worst an impulsive decision that has hurt a large section of vulnerable Indians begging the question whether the nationwide closure was required and if it was, whether it needed to be done with adequate preparation.
And, to make it worse, a virus that does not discriminate among humans based on religion, nationality or gender is being turned into a bigger monster with the added potential to destroy an already fraught social cohesiveness when that is what is needed the most in this time of crisis.
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