India: Marginalised communities, informal workers and women bear the brunt of COVID-19 second wave

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Stranded migrant workers during fourth phase of the lockdown in Dehli. Photo: Sumita Roy Dutta, Wikipedia Media Commons

Sion Kongari, regional manager of programs in Rajasthan and Gujarat, spoke with Green Left’s Markela Panegyres about India’s devastating COVID-19 second wave.

What is the current situation on the ground?

The second wave of COVID-19 caught all of us unprepared. None have been spared, either directly, or through some near friend or family — all of us are affected.

As health facilities continue to be overwhelmed in treating COVID-19 patients, the most marginalised communities and informal workers are struggling to find the required support.

During this second wave, the need for medical help is being felt in a much more pronounced manner. At the same time, the challenge to survive without income or means of livelihood continues for many people.

The need for a strong medical infrastructure, complete with a vast network of primary health centres, community health centres and referral hospitals has never been felt more acutely.

While a pandemic of this nature could overwhelm the best, we need to recognise the inadequacies of our public health services, which have crumbled too soon.

Medical personnel, including doctors, nurses and other staff, are performing under tremendous pressure and accomplishing great things, but their numbers are low and the resources they have at their disposal are limited.

Life-saving oxygen is in short supply. There are shortages of hospital beds and key medicines.

We are seeing families being left to take their loved ones suffering from COVID-19 from hospital to hospital in search of treatment.

ActionAid Association India has launched COVID-19 helplines in 13 states and one union territory. To an average of 300 calls per day per helpline, we are providing authentic information on the availability of oxygen, hospital beds and food support to all callers. In some locations, we’re working with doctors to provide telehealth services.

We are looking to provide critical life-saving supplies to public hospitals at this difficult time, including oxygen concentrators, testing kits and other critical equipment in place.

Are some states faring better than others? How are the policies of Modi's government affecting individual states?

The economic impact of last year’s lockdown has made everyone wary of repeating it on that scale.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting states differently, and the need not only for federalism, but also better local governments, has been felt more keenly this time around.

The experience of Dharavi last year is a clear lesson for how a COVID-19 response should happen. Dharavi [a slum area in Mumbai] is one of the most densely populated places in the world. It has around a million people living in 2.1 square kilometres.

When COVID-19 cases started in the area in April last year, people feared the worst. But with coordinated action at the ground level between local administration, medical personnel, grassroots civil society organisations, community-based organisations, local volunteers and the community as a whole — [meant that] in just two months they flattened the curve.

This year, too, Dharavi has largely escaped the infection. ActionAid Association continues to work with communities and in collaboration with the civic administration in the area.

The call of the hour is collaborative response.

Looking forward, we need to follow this up with collaborative planning for building more resilient communities in both rural and urban areas.

How has the crisis impacted women, girls, trans women and LGBTI folk?

Some states have already announced lockdowns, which are again impacting women workers, who make up the majority of informal workers such as domestic workers, street vendors and rag pickers. Lockdowns and travel restrictions mean they cannot earn money to support their families.

It is not just food insecurity that these workers have to grapple with. They are being pushed into debt to buy vegetables, milk and other essentials to meet their family’s daily needs.

Girls, especially those from marginalised communities and those with disabilities, may be particularly affected by the second wave of the outbreak.

Economic stress on families, school closures and lockdown measures are putting women and girls at greater risk of gender-based violence, child marriage and sexual exploitation.

Is the crisis worsening inequality and/or conflict between people of different religions and/or castes?

COVID-19 is exacerbating the already existing social inequalities in India and widening the gap in access to education, health and livelihoods.

The effect of the pandemic has been uneven: Dalit, tribal communities, religious minorities and women are most affected.

So, a uniform and blanket response for the entire population cannot mitigate the effect of the pandemic on these vulnerable groups.

Government assistance and support packages need to prioritise the needs of the most marginalised.

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ActionAid Australia have launched an emergency appeal to support the response in India, providing oxygen concentrators and medical supplies. Readers can support the appeal .