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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 19 New Delhi, April 25, 2020

The Trails of a Blood-Sucking Vampire: Ingredients of COV19 Pandemic Analysis

Saturday 25 April 2020

by Prof. Atanu Sengupta, Dr. Sanjoy De, Dr. Anirban Hazra, Ujjwal Seth

Introduction

“….indeed, nothing was to be seen but waggons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, &c.; coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away;”
A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel, Defoe (1722)

Man has long experience of epidemics in the past (The Black Death in Europe, the Great Bubonic Plague, the 1918 Bombay Spanish flu and many more). Analysts have confronted the origin, spread and effect of epidemics. Many fictional and semi-fictional books are written on it (A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, The Last Man by Mary Shelley and the Albert Camus novel The Plague).

As a social scientist, the study of epidemic gives us an interesting insight into the structure of our society. Most analysts show like life, death is also unequal (Sen, 1981). Theodore W. Schultz (1964) analysed the effect of influenza epidemic of India on the poor agricultural labourers in our countryside.

The current pandemic of Covid 19 has some unique features. It is highly infectious with a reproduction number of 2-2.5. The rapid spread of the disease is due to globalisation and ineffective public health system in most of the countries in the world. [1] World Health Organisation has recommended social distancing, lock down and quarantine as ways to check this pandemic.

These guidelines bring in with some issues. In a country like India where many people are homeless living in slums, crawling in a limited space, the measures of physical distancing and home quarantine become difficult (if not impossible) to be achieved. Coupled with lock down, this causes a major livelihood problem. Thus, the poor in our country faces a dilemma – to fight against the disease or to fight against hunger. In this note, we try to deal with some of these issues in an analytical way.

Indian Odyssey and the Government Action

In India, the first case of corona virus infection was detected on January 30, 2020 when a young lady of Kerala who returned from Wuhan was tested positive. Subsequently, the transmission spread to several places in the country with the suspects having some sort of travel links to the afflicted nations. As per the data provided by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, as on 09 April 2020, (09:00 GMT+5:30), there were 5274 confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection, along with 472 cured/discharged cases and 166 deaths in the country. The number of affected people includes 71 foreign nationals and the cases of infection have been reported from 25 states and 6 union territories.

In order to control the spread of the virus, on March 22, 2020, the government urged the citizens to observe people’s curfew from 7 am to 9 pm. Subsequently, on March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced one of the biggest lockdowns of the whole country for a period of 21 days.

The government acted much late and with a laxity at the initial stage. Intense checking of people coming from the infected countries and their quarantine could have easily checked its pace. This is the screening process –the way South Korea (and some other South East Asian countries) achieved success in its fight against Covid19. Further, the government could have gone for partial lockout initially as in China where only one province was locked. The lockout of the affected states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Kerala could have stemmed the tide or at least abated its speed. Valuable time is lost. Further the lockout was executed without any planning. Another failure of the government is to curb congregation- social, religious and political gatherings.

Despite the best intention of the government to arrest the disastrous impact of the disease, the decision has turned out to be a terrible and shocking for many in the country who relies heavily on migrant and manual labour. For the 80% of the India’s total workers, who are in the informal sector with no legal contracts and protection, the idea of work from home is ludicrously luxurious. Many of them are manual workers working in factories, streets, hotels in cosmopolitan cities, far away from their native villages. From the stand point of these large set of people, the order seems to be a bit unprecedented, unplanned and hasty. Under such massive lockdown, with no channel of transport remaining open, with sealed state borders, police atrocities, diminishing or no cash, no jobs and shelter, millions of poor migrant labourers have crowded in the bus terminus in major cities to desperately reach their home places. This again amplified the fears of spread of the disease to the rural and slum areas too. Many of them even ventured into reaching their home areas by merely walking or cycling thousands of miles. In a phone interview with NPR, the renowned economist Jean Dreze commented that “The staying power of India’s poor is very, very short. People like casual laborers, rickshaw pullers and migrant workers are basically living from hand to mouth at the best of times.”

Truly, the intent of the lockdown has been to curb the spread of the disease to the higher level. However, the lack of adequate planning, necessary arrangements and guidance, assurance of some kind of safety of jobs of the poor, casual, construction workers, domestic help and migrant workers have left them in dire straits. This may in turn prove out to be catastrophic both in terms of the spread of the disease as well as from purely economic point of view.

Various Approaches of Analyzing the Impact of Covid-19

The rapid spread of Covid-19 virus can be analysed from three standpoints. First is the viewpoint put forth by the WHO or from the physicians’ standpoint. Due to the highly infectious nature of the virus, WHO as well as the doctors’ fraternity are constantly recommending some suggestions or practices to curb the spread of the disease. The practice of lock-down and social distancing are strongly urged. For the infected people and the people who have come close to the infected persons, the measures of isolation and quarantine have been suggested. This approach is also giving stress in augmenting quarantine and isolation facility, raising the number of ventilators and other necessary arrangements.

The second way to analyze the impact of Covid -19 is to assess its short term as well as long term impact on the broader economy. This can also be referred to as the standard mainstream economic approach. Impact of the pandemic on GDP, employment, supply of food, price level are analysed here.

The third approach, which is of our interest here, is the Rawlsian (1971) approach. It hinges upon the traits of justice in economic system. The impact of sudden and prolonged lock-down can have serious implications to the poor and the vast number of migrant workers in India, which is predominantly informal in nature. This, in effect, bulldozes the power of ‘social network’ of these marginalised people, many of whom are employed in the cosmopolitan cities of the country. This leaves the migrants clueless about how to re-coup from this onslaught. This approach examines the socio-economic aspects of these marginalised people, for whom ‘local network’ creates a ‘trustful’ environment to lead subsistence level of life at least.

Issue of social network

However the true plight of these workers could not be captured by either mass exodus or the severity thereof. These are disturbing temporary phenomenon. The real issue lies elsewhere. The sudden decision of lock down has actually inflicted indelible long-term damage to the strong social network, derived acquaintance and the ‘trustful’ environment of the migrants in their place of work. Miles away from their villages, the migrants engaged in the informal sectors of the cosmopolitan cities, have managed to build up some leeway and comforting environment with years of efforts. For them, migration is a means of subsistence. Sometimes they have also brought in known people from their villages, friends and relatives. This actually bolstered the social network. This not only helped them earn some income to at least survive hands to mouth but also to provide some financial support back at home.

This kind of social network in groups and contacts has actually smoothened the process of migration to the areas which offers regular wage employment and improved transport and communication facility. On the other side, growing poverty, declining livelihood options in their home villages and overburdened agricultural sector also serve as the ‘push’ factors behind such migration.

Chakrabarti (2010) has detailed the development of such social network as a part of conscious effort on the part of the poor. He argued that the poor has to grow a ‘goodwill’ (as an intangible asset) in order to get loans that are essential for his survival. Pathways of developing this intangible asset come through social and economic interactions with groups and peers. Chakrabarti (2010) argues that without this intangible asset, survival would have been impossible for most of the poor. For the migrant poor, the problem becomes quite difficult since he has to prove himself in an alien landscape far from his home place thus losing the natural advantage of local upbringing.

In India, some areas, which are relatively more industrialised lure more migrants than others. According to the Census 2011 D-series data, we see Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka are the states with having the total number of migrants in descending order. Among these states, in Uttar Pradesh only 6.3% migration is due to work/employment related purposes, whereas 66.2% migration is due to marriage which is highest in India. In the national capital territory of Delhi, 28% of the migration is attributable to job and employment related purposes. Among the union territories, Chandigarh has the largest migration with about 30% due to work/employment related purposes.

Again, from the All India Debt and Investment Survey 2013 data, we see that for the rural areas, the share of non-institutional sources in total credit disbursal is 44%. In the non-institutional category, the local network of input supplier, relatives & friends, doctor, lawyers & other professionals and others plays a crucial role. The share of this group is 10% in total loan disbursal. For the lowest two decile classes, the shares of this group (input supplier, relatives & friends, doctor, lawyers & other professionals and others) in total credit disbursal are 11.7% and 14.6% respectively. In the urban areas, the share of the informal loans to total loans is 15.5%. The share of the network-based group is 4.8% as a whole. The shares of this network-based group for the lowest two decile classes are 20.9% and 15.1% respectively. This actually speaks of the strengths of personal acquaintance, social ties and community advantage in the obtainment of credit for the poor people in the country, many of whom are engaged as migrant workers in the informal sector.

Again, if we look at the purpose of loan, we see that in the rural areas of the country 28.2% of the total loans are taken for household expenditure and other purpose. For the non-cultivator and the cultivator classes of people in the rural areas, 33.8% and 26.5% of the loan are taken out to meet household and other expenditure. Again, for the urban areas, as a whole, 15.6% of the credit is disbursed for household expenditure and other purposes. For the self-employed urban people, loan taken out to meet household and other expenditure is 13.3% and for other urban people loan taken out to meet household and other expenditure is 17%. This sizeable part of credit taken out for household expenditure and other purposes, both in the rural and urban areas, indicates the influence of social network and ties in the credit market.

In a latest survey conducted by, Jan Sahas, a civil society organisation that focuses on human rights of socially excluded communities (Kapur 2020), a frightening picture is revealed. The organisation surveyed 3,196 migrant workers across northern and central India between March 27 and 29. In the first two weeks of the lock down, all the foods provided by the public distribution centres has been exhausted for the 40% of the migrant workers of the country. About 80% fear that they will run out of food as to end of lockout. If it is extended, they might find it hard to support basic household expenses. The report says that about 92.5% of the surveyed workers have lost their jobs due the lockdown.

The survey found that a sizeable portion of the workers will not be covered under the government’s relief program. For example, about 18.9% of the surveyed construction workers have the required legal document to get the public relief. For all categories of workers the picture is worse - only 6% have the required document. About 60 % have no knowledge of this scheme. Also 14% did not have ration cards and 17% did not have bank accounts.

About 79% of the respondent fear that they would not be able repay loan while 48.1 % fear violence perpetuated by the creditors.

Among the wish list they put forward to the government, 80.3% wants monthly ration while 59.6% wants monthly financial support. About 20.3% wants health care support while 9.7% wants loan waiver.

The abrupt decision of total lockdown has thrashed this very fabric of social networks which is at the heart of the poor people in the country, many of whom are employed in the informal sector of the relatively industrialised cities of the country. These people engaged in other parts of the country as migrants also build some sort of social network to survive.

This lockdown has hammered these social ties which is the lifeline of a migrant’s life. Now, loss of jobs both at the current and the future periods looms large. The scattered and dispersed migrants with heaps of insecurity have lost their confidence. They may not be able to build up that ‘local network’ so easily in future. If they venture into new avenues at all in future (in the same place before their exodus or in some other place), they will have to start from the scratch in order to rebuild the dilapidated network. Sadly, they have to do all these just for mere subsistence.

Conclusion

We will not end in a grand conclusion. That is beyond the scope of unimportant brainless mortals like us. We go to a real life story that has been subverted behind the tall headlines of mainstream media. It is a story of Monihara and Chapri-two small villages in the border of Bankura and Purulia district of West Bengal. The poor people of these villages supported a group of migrant workers from Bihar who were in dire strait while returning to their village on foot due to the sudden and abrupt lockout with food, teleconnecting their native village and finally a bail out through contacting local political parties who made arrangement for their return.

A social network developed where it did not existed. They are bringing forth the insight of the father of economics “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren,…” (Wealth of Nations, Book 1 Chapter 2).

In all probability, like the wins of the yesteryears, a win is also inevitable this time too. But, the lesson of this long and tragic episode can drawn even at this moment – we need to upgrade our healthcare system, maintain a substantial budget allocation for health in order to better prepare for future pandemics.

References:

Chakrabarti, S. (2010), Concept and method of ascertaining assets of rural households, The Journal of Income and Wealth. 32 (1), 2010, 3–13.

Daniel, Defoe. (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year. E. Nutt, England.

Duflo, E and Banerjee , A (2020), A prescription for action: Nine steps after the next 21 days, The Indian Express, Retrieved from: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-lockdown-coronavirus-infection-abhijit-banerjee-esther-duflo-6336624/

Kapur Manavi (2020), Charted: Lockdown is only the beginning of misery for India’s migrant labourers April 7 2020, Quartz India

Rawls, John (1971): A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schultz, T. W. (1964), Transforming Traditional Agriculture. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press.

Sen. A. (1981), Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1981.

Sen. A. (2015), Universal healthcare: the affordable dream, The Guardian, Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jan/06/-sp-universal-healthcare-the-affordable-dream-amartya-sen

Sengupta. Atanu and De Sanjoy (2020), End of a Paranoia: A Philosophical Tour of the Anti- CAA Protests, Mainstream Weekly, Volume 58, No 9.

Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, at MetaLibri Digital Library.

Swetha G, Anantha Eashwar V M, Gopalakrishnan, S (2019), Epidemics and Pandemics in India throughout History: A Review Article, Indian Journal of Public Health Research & Development, Vol. 10, No. 8.

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AUTHORS

(1) Prof. Atanu Sengupta
Professor, Department of Economics,Burdwan University, Burdwan, West Bengal, India
E-mail: sengupta_atanu[at]yahoo.com

(2) Dr. Sanjoy De
Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Shyampur Siddheswari Mahavidyalaya, University of Calcutta, West Bengal, India
E-mail: sanjoyde2000[at]gmail.com

(3) Dr. Anirban Hazra
Researcher, Department of Economics, Burdwan University, Burdwan, West Bengal, India
E-mail: coolrana.07[at]gmail.com

(4) Ujjwal Seth
Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Government College of Engineering and Textile Technology, Berhampore, West Bengal, India
E-mail: ujjwalseth11[at]yahoo.com


[1Not very long ago Sen (2015) pointed out that Ebola spread could have been avoided had there been an efficient public health system. Sadly this is now true for most of the countries. U.S.A, for example, witnessed a decline in hospital beds in public hospital from 15 lakh in 1975 t to 9.25 lakh in 2019. In England, the National Health Service has become virtually bankrupt after a decade of non-investment by the government. Again, another country Iran is crippled in the stock of medical equipments and infrastructure due to the ban imposed by the USA. Unfortunately, the ban has not even been lifted at the time of Covid 19 pandemic. Even in Italy, the quality of public health is highly questionable.

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