India’s Workforce Grapples With Coronavirus Lockdown

On March 23, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, abruptly announced that the entire country would be put on a 21-day lockdown in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, 17 Indians have died of the virus and over 700 have been infected, though some healthcare experts fear the numbers are greater than what is being reported. With over eighty per cent of India’s workforce not receiving paid sick leave, millions of livelihoods hang in the balance. Travel restrictions aimed at containing the virus have also impacted millions of migrant workers, and those who live on day-to-day income must now grapple with the prospect of no income for the next three weeks.

“I earn 600 rupees ($8; £6.50) every day and I have five people to feed. We will run out of food in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can’t see my children hungry,” said Ramesh Kumar, a daily-wage earner from the Banda district in Uttar Pradesh state, to the BBC. 90 per cent of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector, and most do not have access to pensions, sick leave, or insurance. Many do not have bank accounts and rely solely on cash.

Many of India’s workers are migrants, and with public transportation halted, thousands have resorted to commuting on foot during the 21-day lockdown. Fearing they will be unable to survive without work, “Many migrant workers feel they have no choice but to walk home. They are walking along highways, along train tracks with no access to food, no access to basic sanitation,” said Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, reporting from New Delhi. Police have responded with harsh force against migrants and street vendors. One person died in the state of West Bengal after being beaten by police for attempting to buy milk during the lockdown.

Indian authorities sent a fleet of buses with room for 52,000 people to the outskirts of New Delhi on Saturday to meet migrant workers trying to reach their native villages. As crowds amassed at border checkpoints across India, the regional governments were advised to set up tented accommodation along highways for migrant workers and establish relief camps in cities.

The Indian government has defended its choice to institute a lockdown. According to Al Jazeera, India’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry claims the rate of increase in infections has stabilized. “While the numbers of COVID-19 cases are increasing, the rate at which they are increasing appears to be relatively stabilizing. However, this is only the initial trend,” a spokesperson said. India currently has 104 testing facilities with the capacity to test 8,000 samples daily.

Leena Meghaney, a legal expert on public healthcare, claimed that a global shortage of chemicals used in the tests and the validation of testing kits being produced domestically were hindering India’s testing capacity. The country is also suffering from a shortage of equipment and medical staff. Ventilators are in short supply, with an estimated 70,000 more needed, the government announced it had ordered only 10,000. Moreover, with only 0.7 hospital beds for every 100,000 people, there are fears that India won’t be able to contain the virus as the situation worsens. The lockdown has also resulted in the shutdown of routine medical services, leaving those with other illnesses in dire straits.

The Indian government announced a 23-billion-dollar fiscal stimulus package to help the poor with financial hardships during the 21-day lockdown. While India has an existing welfare program and the government appears to be using that to provide direct cash transfers and food grains, however, with the high percentage of the workforce in the informal sector, it is uncertain how accessible these resources will be.