“The truth is this pandemic has shaken the very pillars of our collective complacency. We either agonized about hunger, want, population, land, power, one-upmanship, evidence-based medicine, economics and acquisitions wherever the fancy of the month took us! This little virus has brought us crashing to our arrogant knees. We have woken up to a cleaner environment, a contained world, an era of near zero economy, mental dependency, physical distancing, fear and helplessness…The only free 'bird' is the living creature the virus does not latch onto… C'est la vie.”
Someone sent this out on WhatsApp, as often happens, without credit to the author. But it neatly summarises the new world that we need to prepare for.
Some like to see it as a ‘post-COVID’ world, assuming that we will beat the killer virus soon and life will go back to normal. That smacks of arrogance and of lessons not learnt.
At best, one can hope for a post-lock-down scenario and prepare for a new reality by discarding several old paradigms. COVID-19 has shown us that our ‘connected’ world that crashed geographical boundaries may be safe as long as we are ‘online’ and not physically connected. After all, with germs weaponised in laboratories by brilliant scientists, we don't know where the next pandemic will come from. Nations will, inevitably, have to work at ring-fencing themselves from the devastating consequences of unknown and fast-spreading killer diseases.
Will it be limited to the physical world? Who is to say that a technology virus as deadly as COVID-19 won’t bring us to our knees by wiping out wealth, stashed in paperless vaults on tech-clouds and ostensibly protected by walls of impenetrable encryption? Why, we could even lose our tech-dependent identities blocking access to our own wealth. Are we really prepared for such a possibility?
As individuals, we have no influence over national policy decisions that affect us. COVID-19 has amply demonstrated the destruction unleashed by wrong or delayed decisions. We have seen it in the death toll in the US and Italy. We have also seen how a clueless World Health Organization (WHO) is, starting with accepting China’s initial assertion that COVID-19 does not spread by human-to-human contact! It turned out to be 10 times more contagious as influenza. WHO’s stance—that healthy people should wear masks only if they are taking care of a person with COVID-19—contradicts the advisories being issued by countries—from India to Germany—that everyone should wear masks outside, especially when they are in a group.
If the death toll alone is a yardstick, then the Indian government’s quick decision to announce a hard lock-down may have helped contain the numbers, but only time will tell the human and economic cost of this lock-down.
The economic impact of COVID-19 is unfolding before us in multiple ways – job losses, the crash in oil prices and the declaration of recession by several countries. As a media entity, we are also flooded with detailed economic analysis and forecasts for various countries, industry segments and companies.
This column will look at some of the human costs of COVID-19, a disease that was spread by the most affluent people on the planet; but, as always, has ended up shattering the lives of the poorest people.
Let us look at two examples—those of migrant workers stranded away from home and sanitation workers who are expected to clean up after us.
The biggest impact of the lock-down is on migrant workers and the self-employed. Overnight, millions of Indians, with respectable sources of livelihood, from roadside hawkers and vendors, persons ironing clothes, working as self-employed drivers, mechanics, painters, carpenters, plumbers, beauticians, hair dressers, or offering other services, have turned destitute. There are also hundreds of fishermen from the coastal states who are stranded away from home due to the suddenness with which the lock-down was imposed.
These are people with aspirations, scraping together a living and hoping for a better tomorrow for their children. Overnight, they are living on charity and donations.
EAS Sarma, social activist and former secretary to the Union government, has written to the prime minister pointing out how “there is one set of laws for those advantageously placed in life and another for the downtrodden majority.” The worst affected are migrant labourers, whose treatment brings out the stark inequality in India.
The government sent airplanes to bring back Indians stranded overseas, and sent over 500 buses to bring back pilgrims or students stranded in other states, but did nothing for migrant workers other than beating them up when they protested. Indeed, the government exposed them to ‘community spread’ of the virus through a forced lock-down, which does not allow room for physical distancing.
Mr Sarma points out, with many examples, how the Centre and state governments have openly adopted a different attitude and perspective about ‘voiceless migrant workers’ trying to reach home, as opposed to the more affluent middle-class who are similarly stranded. And, yet, when the lock-down was first imposed, COVID-19 was a disease that originated abroad, and was brought to India by those who could undertake international travel.
When COVID-19-related deaths began to first surface in Mumbai, we learnt that sanitary workers on permanent employment with the municipal corporation initially refused to touch the bodies. They wanted the task assigned to ‘contract’ workers, who are also unionised, but less in a position to bargain.
We already have a notorious record of sending desperately poor contract labour to their deaths by assigning them to tasks like cleaning sewers and polluted wells without proper safety equipment or precautions. Once again, the hunt was on for expendable lives, when it came to dealing with a virus.
Will this change? Sanitation work, including sweeping of streets, is not mechanised because of protests by municipal unions, whose concern was that it would lead to a reduction in employment. It was a political hot potato that nobody wanted to touch.
Over time, technological solutions have come in via private initiatives and funding through corporate social responsibility (CSR) allocations. But they have only added the existing solutions, without touching the existing workforce.
So, we have an incongruous situation where ‘temporary contract workers’ are used to do the work that permanent employees won't, while mechanisation is opposed for fear that it may reduce employment at the lowest end of the government pyramid.
Illegal sub-contracting of work to needy ‘contract’ labour is rampant even at the individual level and accountability is extremely low. All of this is aided by politicians, because there is plenty of money to be made in providing government jobs which also builds strong vote banks.
Last week, a group of academics wrote an open letter demanding a mechanisation of sanitation work. They have, correctly, asked for sanitation workers to be treated as health workers who should be covered by health insurance. All of this, including technology solutions for the most dangerous jobs, such sewer cleaning robots, is possible, even without adding to more government jobs.
The academics correctly say, “The hope is that as a nation, perhaps we have, finally, understood the importance of public hygiene. If we wish it to become a feature of the nation, we have to go far beyond mere tokenism.”
It is a chicken-and-egg situation. Without adopting large-scale mechanisation of manual work, we are not going to tackle the hygiene issue which is of national importance in the face of pandemics. Our infamous tolerance for filth around us is not only about our own habits but the inability to demand and enforce mechanised cleaning. The ban on contract work can only follow. This requires government to look beyond vote banks and union interests and put the nation’s interest first.