The COVID-19 Pandemic India Faces the Biggest Challenge of the 21st Century in the form of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Apr 17, 2020 | All posts, Letters from...

Updated: Apr 18

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the whole world scrambling for options to tackle the worst crisis that it has witnessed since the “Second World War”, as put by the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres. The unprecedented situation has brought disarray in many countries, and in reality, it has shown gaping loopholes in the existing governance mechanisms in most countries, irrespective of the stage of development they are in.

India, a lower middle-income country (according to World Bank classification) is grappling with several challenges as the government imposed a 21-day nation-wide complete lockdown on March 25 and it has now been extended up to May 3. The country is expected to continue to be at risk even if the health (and mortality-related) challenges are sufficiently addressed in light of crippling of its economy and its developmental gains possibly being eroded.

The Indian Government was swift to declare the lockdown – a more stringent version in comparison to many other countries – to drive a population of more than 1.3 billion into practising ‘social distancing’. When the lockdown was announced by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the numbers of infected cases and fatalities were still slow, but everybody was aware that this was only the beginning of the growing number of COVID-19 infection clusters across the country, particularly in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Testing has been ramped up in the past few days, but testing and healthcare facilities (including ventilators) remain limited. It is clear that the country has a long way to go in terms of aggressively adopting the ‘trace, test and treat’ strategy that some countries like South Korea have implemented.

What does the lockdown mean for the disadvantaged sections?

The central and state governments in India have chosen to prioritise lives over livelihoods as of now, under these circumstances. The plight of the migrant labourers, in particular, is yet to be effectively addressed by the authorities. There is a brewing humanitarian crisis in the Indian cities as the unemployed migrant labourers are trying to return to their homes in other states. Daily wagers, construction workers, house helps and millions of other Indians working in informal sectors are hit adversely by the lockdown. The concerned authorities have done little to provide these migrant workers “safety, shelter and food” in these difficult times.

Slowly, states are waking up to the problem though, as in the case of Maharashtra, which has released a five-point action plan that consists of steps to provide various types of assistance to migrant workers. At the end of the 21-day lockdown, a law and order situation cropped up as migrant workers crowded at one of Mumbai’s (Maharastra’s capital city) railway stations to return to their hometowns in huge numbers. The state also has reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country (over 3,000, as of April 17). As much as, or at times, more than the state agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been active in delivering much-needed humanitarian assistance to the disadvantaged sections, especially by offering free meals.

The Finance Ministry has been struggling to tackle the economic slowdown since last year, but with the COVID-19 crisis, the situation has worsened. It plans to release financial relief package in a staggered manner, according to reports, specifically to aid industrial and service sectors, and the socio-economically underprivileged sections. However, the fear is that even though the government has announced direct cash transfers to women, disabled, and farmers; increase in the provision of food grains; and provision of free cooking cylinders among other measures, these may negligible in comparison to the scale of the problem that the country faces.

Impacts on the Older People in India

If there is one section of the population that is at a much higher risk of infection as well as fallouts of the lockdown, it is the older people. Not only are they anxious about the higher mortality rates among the older adults, but also they are struggling to carry out their daily household chores, as well as obtain essential supplies and healthcare services (that are, to a large extent, dedicated to combatting the pandemic). They are battling loneliness too, as the lockdown has cut off most of their social contacts.

According to data produced by HelpAge India, around six percent of India’s older people live alone and a significant proportion of them live in villages (as their children migrate to cities in search of employment opportunities), where the support systems usually exist in the form of self-help groups and community setups. If these systems are not adequately functional, the older population is left even more vulnerable.

In many states, including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Kerala, state governments and local administrations are taking steps to ensure the supply of essential and medical supplies. In India’s Information Technology (IT) hub, Bengaluru, NGOs and other private actors are also stepping in to provide any form of assistance to older people by delivering essentials, providing mental health support in these distressing times and so on.

The road ahead is daunting

The implementation of many well-intentioned proposals and measures need to take place at various levels of governance (central, state and local bodies) as per a timeline. However, most often, the urgency of the issues is not recognised and they are trapped in bureaucratic red tape, whether it concerns the shortage of masks and sanitisers or the disbursement of financial packages. Some states are doing better than the others are. Among the better-performing ones, Kerala (that was at one point leading with the most number of cases) is now flattening the curve, with cases of recovery outnumbering that of active ones and fresh infections – thanks partly to its decentralised systems.

India has been able to reduce its poverty rate and enhance people’s living standards in recent decades (as evident in the rise of the middle class). However, an extended lockdown could erode these achievements due to the unparalleled effects of the pandemic, lockdown and other measures on health, jobs, incomes, supply/demand, education, and food security among others. In fact, the persisting income inequality and the digital divide could worsen. Food riots could happen if the people’s requirements are not met through social provisioning, especially those whose incomes have been disrupted completely.

There is a discernible spike in the number of cases in many parts (clusters) of the country and the level of uncertainty about the peaking of COVID-19 infection is high. The mathematical models seem to be giving different predictions about the peaking of infection and the kind of measures that can help curb the spread of the virus. In such a scenario, the extension of the lockdown was obvious. Yet, the Indian Government needs to do everything it could to keep the economy afloat and social security schemes functioning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Dhanasree Jayaram is Co-Coordinator at the Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India.