On March 24th, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, imposed a 21-day lockdown of India, one of the strictest and largest lockdowns in the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and despite a relatively low incidence of infection (5,865 of a population of 1.3 billion as of today). As it has for all countries, the economic impact on India has been tremendous, but for India’s 100 million poor migrant workers, the impact has been especially harsh. Now out of work, India’s migrant workers have been forced to leave their work dormitories. Millions have poured into the streets, homeless and hungry, and easily exposed to infection. Many have walked hundreds of miles back to their villages, sparking India’s largest exodus since the Partition of India in 1947. Because these workers no longer have a source of income, many cannot afford to eat.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, recently expressed concern over the situation facing India’s migrant workers: “The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked.” In her statement, she praised India’s government for taking steps to help these migrant workers by bringing them into quarantine while providing them with food, water, supplies, and a bed. However, she noted, “In spite of all these significant efforts, more needs to be done as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes.” In a radio address, Prime Minister Modi apologized to his citizens: “Especially when I look at my poor brothers and sisters, I definitely feel that they must be thinking, what kind of prime minister is this who has placed us in this difficulty? I especially seek their forgiveness. […]I understand your troubles but there was no other way to wage war against coronavirus[…] It is a battle of life and death and we have to win it.”
No government was prepared for the coronavirus. And while India’s response mirrored that of other countries, its sudden imposition simply did not take into account the impact it would have on the tens of millions of Indians that live hand-to-mouth. Indeed, India’s lockdown may very well do more harm than the coronavirus it seeks to protect itself from. The government has passed a $24 billion relief package, specifically aimed at India’s poor. Critics have argued that this is simply not enough. But, the coronavirus pandemic has shed light on a core issue to Indians: India’s poor (21% of India’s population or 270,000,000 Indians live below the international poverty line) are systematically underserved. If there is a lesson to be learned from this tragic episode, it is that India’s successes in lowering the poverty rate have not been enough. Knowing that such pandemics will occur again, India must redouble its efforts to increase public spending on basic services in both urban and rural settings, encourage nonfarm businesses to take greater responsibility for employee welfare, encourage savings among the poor (perhaps through the auspices of universal basic income), and spend more on the public health system for the poor.
India recorded its first case of coronavirus on 30 January when a student studying at Wuhan University returned home to Kerala. On 19 March, Modi implored his citizens to take part in a Janata Curfew, a self-imposed curfew from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. IST. Five days later on 24 March, Modi implemented the nationwide lockdown. According to India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, since the beginning of the lockdown, cases in India have grown from 519 on 24 March to 5,865 as of 9 April.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, coronavirus cases in India have increased exponentially. The spread of coronavirus amongst populations of India’s poor could be devastating. Many poor Indians are out of work, hungry, and homeless. They are extremely at risk of being exposed to the virus and could not afford treatment even if widespread treatment existed. On top of this, the sudden lockdown created even more hardship for India’s poor, in particular. Without more permanent action, India’s poor could continue to suffer even in the event of another pandemic. India must do more to protect its poor.