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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 3 January 20, 2024

Rethinking the Covid Pandemic | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 19 January 2024, by Arup Kumar Sen


Covid 19 pandemic affected people almost in all countries of the world. However, the impact of the pandemic varied across regions, classes and communities. A recently published book, Pandemic and Precarity (Sampark, Kolkata, 2023), has explored the differential impact of the pandemic on the labouring people in India. The editor, Rituparna Datta, has nicely situated the twelve papers incorporated in the book: “This report on Pandemic and Precarity tries to open a canvas of ‘Pandemicscapes’ as the narratives of the lived experiences of the precariat and to put into the maps and diagrams of pandemic sociology the voice of the ‘subaltern subjects’…”

Pratik Mishra has explored in his paper the precarity of brick kiln workers engaged in nearby factories in Sonipat and Delhi-NCR. He observed: “Caught at the intersection of the bonded labour wage relation, spatial immobility, exploitative owners and extractive shopkeepers, workers like Manoj were already in a state of crisis before Covid-19 affected the work season…From a contagion standpoint, the pandemic did not have devastating consequences in the brick kilns in Khanda even through the deadly second wave…Work in the brick kilns did not come to a halt directly due to the imposition of lockdown, but through disruptions in the supply of production material…The brick kiln season of 2019-20 ended in July as workers left the kilns on buses hired by the owner after the relaxation of lockdown norms. All workers, I knew, returned empty- handed after making very few bricks throughout the season, and mostly sitting idle.”

The above narrative makes it clear that the Covid pandemic posed a major economic crisis, rather than a health crisis, to the brick kiln workers in the National Capital Region (NCR). Similarly, Harshita Sinha has enlightened us about the precarity of informal migrant workers in Delhi during the pandemic. She argued: “In 2020, the announcement of the lockdown brought the informal economy to a standstill with the living conditions that were already in a hand-to-mouth situation, the minimum requirements of bare life were difficult to accrue.” Manish Maskara, in his theoretical reading, has drawn our attention to the mode of reorganization in the building construction industry in India in the post-lockdown period and the consequent precarity of migrant workers in the sector: “In the progressive phases of India’s reopening after the lockdown, builders, especially major global companies with ongoing projects in Delhi, Hyderabad, Maharashtra and other states, demanded changes in terms and conditions of contracts undertaken by labour sub-contractors at the worksites…In fact, labourers saw a reduction in the wage rates or otherwise no changes in their wages despite the increased workload as they switched to work on a piece-rate basis.”

Rajat Kanti Sur has located in his study the precarity as well as solidarity among sex workers in Kolkata during the Covid period. His study is focused on sex workers in the Sonagachi area. He found that the conditions of ‘flying sex workers’ were more precarious than the resident sex workers. He cited an official of the organization of sex workers, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), who talked about the care taken by the organization of non-resident sex workers: “We had to shelter them. Because they are our sisters. We could not throw them out.”

Shatabdi Das has explored in her paper how the Covid pandemic impacted the coal mine workers in Eastern India. She cautioned about the under-reporting of deaths of coal miners due to Covid infections. She observed that the “requisites of keeping the mines in a continuous production process jeopardized the health and life of thousands of workers, similar to other sectors of the economy providing essential services during the frontline combat of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

There are other important papers in the book focusing on the impact of the Covid pandemic on the tea garden workers of the Dooars region in West Bengal, ASHA workers in the tea plantations of Assam, vulnerability and solidarity of women of the labouring class in the Murshidabad and Purulia districts of West Bengal, slum dwellers in Indian cities, sanitation workers in Bengaluru and theatre workers in West Bengal. The last entry in the book is ‘A Note from Nagaland’. Khesheli Chishi made seminal observations in the Note: “Women, known to be the caregivers in the family had to return home and take over the responsibility of looking after them. Some of these women had to go back to the villages as they found no alternative work in their home towns. All this while some women who had no choice stayed back in the cities where they had been working, in order to survive and be independent. These women were subjected to racial slurs and abuse by fellow countrymen as they were tagged ‘Chinese’, ‘the virus’, ‘corona’ and other racial comments. They lost their jobs and homes because of the way they looked…”

The fieldwork-based articles incorporated in the book have really enlightened us about the continuation as well as intensification of precarity, both economic and socio-cultural, of the ‘subaltern subjects’ during and after the Covid-pandemic.

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