India’s Warning Shot: Trials To Come For The Developing World

In times of crisis, it is understandable – human, even – to want to look after your own. Unfortunately, this will not do for low-income countries, and the world needs to realize it, fast.

The Fallout of Lockdown in India

You might be forgiven for having thought, on the March 23rd, that the response of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Coronavirus pandemic was rather unremarkable. We are getting used to news of countries heading into lock-down across the globe. On the face of it, then, Modi’s announcement of a three week lock-down seemed run-of-the-mill. Unfortunately, it was anything but. Within days, appalling scenes of a mass exodus from the capital city of Delhi were recorded as it became clear that millions of workers across India were returning to their villages rather than staying to starve in cities without work. Modi’s administration quickly announced a financial package of $24 billion designed to help those financially affected by the lock-down. Administering such aid, however, is a logistical nightmare, as the hungry crowds waiting for government-promised meals in Delhi will readily tell you.

Nevertheless, the chief of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently praised the package for helping India’s vulnerable populations. It is certainly in the interest of the WHO to focus on the positives in India. Their advice to countries to step up the fight against the Coronavirus by imposing stricter measures is certainly behind India’s sudden lock-down. The awful scenes of what is essentially a migrant crisis – as well as more recent evidence of crowds being forced to sit and be sprayed with disinfectant on arriving in new regions in India – are compelling evidence that a one-size-fits-all Coronavirus policy will not work internationally. The lessons learned from India will be invaluable when the Coronavirus spreads to other low-resource countries to prevent what some in India are already calling a tragedy.

Problems with Lockdown in India

It should be said that criticizing Modi’s government with the rosy spectacles of retrospect is very easy. It should not be an aim in and of itself. However, it is important to establish why India’s lock-down caused the fallout that it did so that similar damage can be avoided elsewhere.

The International Labour Organisation’s Bharti Birla, reported in relation to the mass migrations from Delhi last week that India’s economy is made up largely of informal, daily-wage labourers. There are over 120 million workers in India who simply do not have enough financial savings to be able to stop working. It is no surprise then, that such workers would either simply disregard the lock-down, continuing to flood to markets and public spaces in search of customers, or return home to their villages, where they hope their families will be able to take care of them. This is hugely disadvantageous politically, socially and economically. Politically, the poor are vulnerable to future scapegoating when the Coronavirus starts to really hurt India, which it almost certainly will do. This is not their fault if they did not have the resources to be able to survive such a lock-down. Also, the authority of the Prime Minister is largely undermined if his imposed measures are not adhered to. Socially, communities are broken and livelihoods stripped of every ounce of dignity. Vikas Pandey, a BBC correspondent in India, described the scenes of elderly women starting journeys of hundreds of kilometres on foot as “heart-breaking.” Furthermore, the coming together of huge crowds is the exact opposite of what Modi was seeking by imposing social isolation measures. It is hard not to be pessimistic about the likelihood of COVID-19 soon breaking out in vulnerable, under-resourced countryside regions.

It is clear, then, that certain economies are more ready for lock-downs than others. The WHO’s guidance on the Coronavirus, then, must be adapted in different countries by means of contextual expertise. What is particularly worrying is that the Indian government did not see this coming. The shocking scenes in Delhi are a damning indictment of a political class that is woefully out of touch with the reality on the ground. Manish Tewari, an MP for the Congress party, described it as a “knee-jerk reaction without thought for the consequences of the poor.” It is important to realize that the reaction is not simply a reaction to the Coronavirus in India, but also a reaction to how Europe and the USA have acted to stop further propagation of the virus. It is all well and good for WHO Secretary-General Ghebreyesus to praise Modi’s relief package, but his hasty decision needs to be condemned as rash and ill-considered. Think of the bigger picture here: hugely populated cities filled with labourers originally from countryside villages are a reality in so many low-income countries worldwide. If India’s knee can be jerked, so can others, and it is important that they do not.

Too Little Too Late? What is to be done?

As the Nobel Laureate economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo stated grimly in their article in the Indian Express last week; “We… need to be prepared for the disease to explode in pockets all over the country… over the next many months.” According to them, action is needed to mobilize and educate health workers across the country as quickly as possible. It may well be the case that with the mass movement of workers out of the cities and into the countryside, India’s ‘containment’ phase could soon be over.

However, it is certainly not too late to reorient the global response so that the agenda for developing countries is not ignored. The danger is that in times of crisis, countries turn inwards. Within the war-spirit solidarity evoked by the common struggle of a country’s citizens can often lie the tendency to forget others. This is understandable. It should, however, be resisted; international cooperation is the key to ensuring that wise decisions are made across the world when they matter the most. The International Monetary Fund needs to start lending generously and a concerted effort must be made to help the distribution channels of both medical and financial supplies in these countries, especially where lock-downs are concerned.

The governments of poorer countries need to feel able to share concerns with the international community concerning the implementation of preventative measures. This is of paramount importance. If there are potential problems with food shortages, with distribution of clean water, with more potential mass migration, it is in everyone’s interest to ensure measures are put in place to prepare. In India, for example, the financial package promised by the government needed to be announced alongside or even before the lock-down to prevent the panic that ensued. Similarly, it was necessary to think about the logistical possibility and efficiency of delivering two free meals a day to the homeless and refugees before it was announced. The reason these things did not happen was because of the pressure to act and to be seen to act.

If international organisations begin to put their heads together and think with developing countries, the impact of the Coronavirus can be greatly lessened. If they put blanket pressure on quick action without considering the consequences, India could be a blueprint for far worse scenes across the world in the months to come.

Joel Fraser


Leave a Reply