COVID-19 in India: 'Relief work has been left to the people'

April 21, 2020
Thousands of migrant workers were left stranded on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border when the BJP government imposed its lockdown.

Green Left co-hosted an international online roundtable on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the Global South on April 11, featuring a range of activists from around the region.

Long-time feminist and socialist Kavita Krishnan, a leader of the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (Liberation), CPI(ML), took part. Krishnan is a well-known spokesperson for the movement against sexual violence in India. She spoke about the failure of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to act to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and the regime’s unplanned and draconian lockdown that is compounding the threat to the lives of millions of India’s poorest and most marginalised people.

The following is a transcript of her presentation. Alternatively, listen to the speeches by Krishnan & Dr Hawzhin Azeez below.

* * *

Kavita Krishnan: Listening to reports from the Philippines and Malaysia, I am struck by the similarity in the response of the governments of the Global South, and by the entire mode of the response, which is draconian rather than democratic. This approach has singly failed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and has instead unleashed a lot of distress in the name of a response. That is something India has in common, especially with the Philippines.

I want to outline quickly what has been going on here. India had its first case of COVID-19 on January 30. So they knew it was happening. But the government of India deliberately suppressed the information, didn’t inform anybody and made no preparations that we know of. Instead they spent the whole of February hosting [US President Donald] Trump and holding large rallies and gatherings for Trump. They even backed Islamophobic violence against the minority Muslim community in Delhi.

The central government did not react until March 22, when they announced a one-day lockdown and then suddenly a day later announced a 21-day lockdown with no warning at all. Some of the state governments had already begun to announce lockdowns by mid-March, but these were poorly communicated and poorly understood. People didn’t really know exactly what was going on.

The result of all this has been pretty predictable. This unplanned lockdown has left millions of migrant workers taken completely by surprise. They are stuck in cities and towns all over India without jobs, without any way of earning money and without any means of getting back home.

Unplanned draconian lockdown

The unplanned and draconian nature of the lockdown has resulted in situations where the very purpose of the lockdown has been undercut. There are huge crowds of migrant workers trying to walk hundreds of kilometres home, just to make it back to their villages. There are hungry communities all over the country, who are in a desperate situation. As in the Philippines, there are street hawkers and so on who now have no means to survive. Most workers in India are in the informal sector and they have been left completely in the lurch by this unplanned lockdown.

The lockdown period ought to be used in some way. Other countries are using the lockdown period when they are flattening the curve to buy time to shore up the medical system. They are doing widespread testing, tracing and treating of COVID-19 cases in order to contain and isolate them. This is not happening in India.

India has among the lowest rate of testing in the world. The government of India was caught in a corruption scandal involving the manufacture of testing kits. It is unclear why the testing kits are so expensive — 4500 Indian rupees or so — making it out of reach for most people. There is no transparency in who is being tested and why and there never was. India has had very poor screening and very poor testing and this continues to be the case.

India’s medical system was already highly privatised. The public health infrastructure was always under pressure and now, in the words of [US Congress Representative] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the United States, this pandemic has "poured gasoline on the existing problems".

So, you have a situation where the health infrastructure is under enormous stress, and where doctors and nurses and sanitation workers are desperately saying: “We don’t have masks, we don’t have PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] kits, we don’t have basic protections”. There are entire hospitals that have to shut down because the doctors and medical staff have been affected by the pandemic.

India has a huge battalion of rural women health workers, called ASHAs [Accredited Social Health Activists], who are the frontline workers in this fight against COVID-19, and yet they don’t even get a basic salary, let alone pandemic pay or protective equipment or any safe transport.

The central government’s response to the pandemic has been to shore up its already existing authoritarianism, to shore up its Islamophobia and to shore up its endorsement and propagation of inequality and utter cruelty.

So, you have a government with the cult figure of Narendra Modi at the centre, who has washed his hands of all responsibility for containing the pandemic. He borrows strategies which people have adopted in various parts of the world, like Italy and Brazil, such as public displays of support for health staff, but he has turned them into fascist spectacles. He has asked people to stand on their balconies and clap or bang plates or light candles. That is essentially all he has done.

The relief package the central government has announced belatedly is a joke, a farce. The relief work has largely been left to people. So it is trade unions like ours and any number of social and even religious organisations that have stepped up to the plate and are desperately trying to provide help and relief to stranded migrant workers and hungry communities. The central government has just looked the other way and hasn’t even bothered to mention this.

Some state governments have shown a better response, but they are also drowning because they were taken by surprise and had no time to plan. All these state governments are opposition ruled governments. The state governments ruled by the BJP have shown some of the worst responses possible to the pandemic.

In India today the number of COVID-19 deaths has passed 200 and the number of confirmed cases is over 6000.

But, because the scale of testing is so low we don’t really know the number of cases. The number of lockdown deaths is also very high. It’s difficult to calculate, but these deaths might include: interstate travel, including migrant workers travelling on foot and dying in road accidents; alcohol-related deaths, including suicides due to alcoholism and suicides due to alcohol withdrawal; suicides due to COVID-19 panic; lynchings of Muslims; lockdown-related hunger deaths; suicides due to livelihood issues; police brutality deaths; suicides due to police brutality; and domestic violence resulting in death.

There are also deaths due to the denial and lack of access to regular medical care, including care for cancer and other chronic and serious illness, all of which has been completely shut down. Everything has been diverted only towards COVID-19, but even that is in very bad shape.

Islamophobic spin

The central government, right from the top, has been surpressing information, denying any kind of transparency, and instead of acknowledging any responsibility itself, it has tried to communalise the pandemic.

In other words, it is trying to give an Islamophobic spin to the pandemic by claiming that it was a Muslim gathering in Delhi that is responsible for India’s COVID-19 problem. This has been helped by the corporate media, which is largely in the central government’s and Modi’s pocket. They have managed to establish this toxic narrative, which has resulted in social boycotts of Muslim street vendors and Muslim-owned shops and even lynch mob violence, which was happening even earlier on other pretexts. This is a fresh pretext for violence against Muslims.

India has always had a caste-based untouchability problem. That has now expanded to include many more, mostly poor, people who are suspected of having the virus.

There is enormous stigma associated with COVID-19, partly because of this high-pitched Islamophobic campaign and criminalising of COVID-19 by the state. So people are trying to suppress information about their health because they feel that quarantine is like an arrest and being put in quarantine is like being put in a detention camp.

Quarantine conditions are terrible for most of the poor people, so they are trying to avoid quarantine. But, as a result of the criminalisation and the stigma attached to COVID-19, as well as the sheer untouchability of COVID-19, patients in quarantine or those suspected of having come in contact with the virus, such as health care workers — doctors, nurses, sanitation workers and so on — they are all experiencing untouchability. They are being evicted by landlords, denied basic services and so on.

Essentially, untouchability in India has gained a fresh lease on life with this virus

The International Labor Organization and the United Nations have warned that, as a result of India’s pandemic-related lockdown, about 400 million Indians are likely to descend into poverty. This means that, apart from those who were already living in poverty, there will be an enormous push of people shoved into poverty virtually overnight. The staying power of India’s poor, who are mainly on daily wages with no other income and no savings, is extremely poor. There is an enormous crisis of food supply. We have found that even giving rations to the poor is not enough, because people will have run out of fuel, so they are unable to cook the food.

Many activists in India have played a remarkable role, especially activists from the CPI(ML) and our trade union comrades. For example, our CPL(ML) MLA Vinod Singh, who is the Member of the Legislative Assembly for the state of Jharkhand, has single-handedly responded to tens of thousands of phone calls from migrant workers and distressed people. Similarly, our three Legislative Assembly members from Bihar have been directly responding to distressed calls from hungry communities and migrant workers. From day one, we had to scramble to respond to the sudden announcement of the lockdown. But, we did manage to establish teams all over the country to respond to the lockdown and provide relief, which the state has singly failed to provide.

Modi had asked people to bang plates and so on. Banging plates is a form of protest that the left and peoples’ movements have used for a long time in India, to signal hunger and price rises and so on. So tomorrow, April 12, poor communities all over India are going to respond by banging plates and telling Modi: “All right, you asked us to do it and we’ve done it as an act of solidarity with doctors. But now we are doing it because those plates we banged are completely empty now.”

Because it looks like the lockdown will be extended, we are saying there must be home delivery of rations, the government must ensure that people get wages, that people’s rents are waived during this crisis and they must ensure people get the medical care they need, including free COVID-19 testing and treatment, but also that other kinds of treatment cannot be suspended during this time.

We also want a stop to the draconian police-driven response and we want a consultative approach, in which people who are working in the front lines, delivering rations, etc are helped not hindered in their work.

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