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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 18 New Delhi, April 18, 2020

LETTER TO THE READERS - COVID 19 Lockdown Edition No.4

Saturday 18 April 2020

The lockdown has been extended further on April 14, 2020 with the PM announcing it through his address to the nation on that day. Early next week, the Government is expected to allow partial resumption of economic activity. However, what needs to be understood is that the situation will not be anywhere near to normal even if the normal is finally lifted after May 3. In fact, reports in foreign newspapers present an alarming picture of the global situation with regard to the pandemic. Latest reports on the domestic situation today suggest the prospect of community transmission in one district of West Bengal, Howrah, for which the state’s CM has expressed deep anxiety and taken certain remedial measures.

Economists around the world are predicting a very grim economic scenario in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, akin to the depression of 1929-30. India like most countries will not be insulated from the coming economic downturn. Its economy was already doing badly and is now clearly headed for long term crisis.

It is a matter of grave concern that the USA which used to fund 15 per cent of the operational budget of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has chosen to put on hold all funding right at the peak of the Coronavirus health crisis. India should lend a helping hand and raise its contribution to the UN body immediately.

There is no sign of any slowing down of international epidemic wildfire. The pandemic is big news because this time the western countries are badly affected. The USA has already seen some 35000 dead and over 22 million job losses. The numbers so far are very small in India . . . we don’t know real figures perhaps, something seems amiss, the tests are very limited in scale so far . . . , hopefully with the new test kits arriving from China the level of testing may go up. The general impression that the public seems to have is that the lockdown is the main strategy of the Indian authorities.

The claim that lockdown is designed for social distancing is only possible for section of the population in India, the vast majority live huddled in congested spaces (say 30% in 1 room tenements and 32 % in 2 room habitats); And migrant workers in the cities share accommodation with 5 to 6 people at times in the slums. There is little room for social distancing for the majority in a densely inhabited country.

Whatever the medical rationale for the lockdown it has certainly crippled multiple sectors of the economy in India.

- Lockdown has impacted on the media Print editions of many newspapers, magazines are shut, and staff been laid off in many media outlets with little hope for some of these jobs re-emerging.

- Thousands of factories and workplaces, the majority of which are in the very small and medium scale category are shut. Thousands of migrant workers who provided services, were factory hands, delivery boys, carpenters, rickshaw pullers, construction workers etc have been fired. Many estimates suggest that close to half a million workers who had been earning a living in cities like Bombay, Delhi, left on foot for their villages in the absence of trains, buses. A frightful sight of thousands of citizens walking the roads to distant locations was reported partly in the media.

A social emergency has been created heavily in favour of the social elites – economists predict that a huge number of labouring poor say a 100 million are likely to be pushed into dire poverty due of the loss of jobs. Thousands of workers are now stranded in cities with no work, no pay or place to stay, They have in large numbers run out of any cash reserves during this long lockdown, which only the middle class and elites can afford. It is matter of shame that the other day thousands of homeless workers in the capital of India were seen lying on the banks of the Yamuna river in the hope for some food and shelter. Similarly in Bombay several thousand workers gathered at railway stations hoping they could go home, but alas the lockdown 2 was announced.
As talk about reopening sections of the economy gain momentum, it remains unclear how the authorities are to implement measures to contain a disease outbreak among workers. Protective equipment is scarce, and workplaces would need to reorganise spatial organisation and reconfigure the assembly lines to minimise the chances of contagion. Let us hope better sense will prevail.

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Meanwhile, speaking to reporters via video conference, Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi yesterday described the on-going lockdown as a “pause button” asserting that it would not defeat the Coronavirus. He called upon the Union Government to ramp up testing and use it as a “strategic weapon” to identify and isolate hotspots while strategically reopening “key areas”. He urged the Government not to fall into a “victory declaration” mindset saying any such premature announcement could be fatal. He called for a united fight against the pandemic and insisted that his observations should not be taken as a criticism but accepted in the spirit of constructive support. He added that he continued to disagree with PM Modi on many issues but this was not the time to “fight” or engage in any kind of bickering.

At the same time, the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) has demanded strong action against those responsible for communal attacks on the livelihood of minority community workers, while unequivocally condemning attacks on vendors, hawkers and shopkeepers belonging to the Muslim community.

According to AITUC General Secretary, Amarjeet Kaur, “it is very disgusting and anguishing to watch the scenes of humiliation, intimidation and physical attacks on Muslims and now severe attack on their livelihood by communal gangs/vigilante groups. They are asked to show their ID proofs to ascertain their religion. The height of the matter is that some videos are showing policemen stopping these vendors from carrying their economic activity giving the impression as if it is the Government policy to stop them. The AITUC demands immediate check of this kind of violation of Indian Constitution and rule of law. Those guilty of attacks should be booked and the victims compensated immediately and assured and allowed to carry on their livelihood activities.”

The Editor, April 17, 2020

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