By Pallavi Siddhanta Mar. 19, 2020
Social distancing and self-isolation are buzzwords for urban Indians, possibly the only way to save ourselves and countless others from the coronavirus pandemic. But a large part of our population simply can’t afford to distance themselves from their daily lives. We still expect milk to be delivered and our houses to be swabbed.
“The cab driver cried in front of me saying I was his first customer in the last 48 hours. He said his wife is expecting groceries today at least. This virus is gonna hit us from so many ways but the people who depend on daily income are gonna get hit the most… He showed me that he has been driving around for 70 kilometres since his last customer.”
This message has been going viral on social media and has been shared by hundreds of Indians on Facebook and Instagram. While there’s no way to verify its authenticity, it’s a reality that haunts India more than any other nation. Close to 81 per cent of employed Indians work in the informal sector – househelps, richshawallas, construction workers – or are part of the gig economy as delivery boys, Uber and Ola drivers. Which means they depend on daily or monthly incomes to get by. So when the world comes to a standstill because it’s hit by a pandemic, how do they cope?
In India, the number of cases of those infected with Covid-19 has risen to 169 and three deaths have been reported so far. The numbers don’t seem alarming when compared to the global figure of 2,18,000, but after seeing the overnight spike in cases in China and Italy, India seems precariously perched on edge.
When the world comes to a standstill because it’s hit by a pandemic, how do they cope?
ARUN SANKAR/ Getty Images
Most of us urban Indians have locked ourselves in. Social distancing and self-isolation are the buzzwords of the moment and possibly the only way to save ourselves and countless others from a pandemic that has put the world under lockdown. But a large part of India simply can’t afford to distance themselves from their daily lives.
Arati Mahato, 31, is a household help in Jamshedpur. She is the sole provider of a family of five. There are 13 homes to go to every day, sometimes, an occasional body massage to give. The day ends at 7 pm when she picks up her children from their tuitions, takes them home for a quick dinner and to bed. By the end of the month, she will have made ₹8,500 in all but that’s only if she doesn’t skip work.
Mahato can’t read or write. Her primary source of news is what she hears from women of the houses she works at. She tells me she has heard from her husband, the only smartphone user in their house, that everybody who has so far contracted the coronavirus has died. This has left her rattled.
She doesn’t know how to escape the “beemari”. Her children have been given small cakes of soap just before school closed, to wash their hands multiple times. She says she too washes her hands after finishing up at each house, but is not sure how much it will help. “Aapke ghar mein beemaari leke aayenge toh hum bhi toh beemaar padenge.” She is referring to the middle-class and knows by now that coronavirus is “imported”; it’s the ones who travel abroad who are infecting the others.
I tell her everyone is being advised to work from home and restrict going out, to contain the spread of Covid-19. She smiles weakly and says, “Do din chhutti karte hain toh bhabhi log paisa kaat leti hai. Piyakkar pi pi ke sab paisa khatam kar dega… Kiraya kaise denge? Ghar kaise chalayenge? (If I take two days’ leave, my employers cut my salary. My husband blows up the money on alcohol. I’ve to pay rent, run the house).”
Arati is not an exception. There are millions like her in India. Househelps who do our chores, vegetable vendors who come to our doorstep, and others from the “working class” for whom social-distancing is a luxury; work from home is not an option. It’s unfathomable.
For the “working class” for whom social-distancing is a luxury; work from home is not an option. It’s unfathomable.
Hindustan Times/ Getty Images
For Sudarshan Gope, this is a desperate time. He runs a small meat shop and has been selling chicken at ₹30 a kilo as opposed to ₹180 because of fake coronavirus-related news inundating WhatsApp. For almost a month now, he’s returning home with just a few hundred rupee notes. The business has taken a slump, shutting shop and self-isolation is something he can’t even think of right now. “Hum thodi computer mein murga bech payenge. Toh bazaar jaate hain roz. (I can’t sell meat online. I have to go the market).”
As the pandemic worsens, the socio-economic divide only widens. Schools and offices are being shut and while students and employees are expected to stay at home, there is always that one watchman or one peon who will be asked to make his way to work using public transport, putting him at a greater risk to catch the virus. For service-givers like delivery boys and beauticians, transmission risks keep multiplying with every interaction. A Scroll.in report from yesterday, titled “Coronavirus: As Bollywood reels from shutdown, daily-wage workers struggle to even buy food” highlighted the plight of workers in the film industry.
Inequality in staring at us in the face and yet we choose to look away.
A New York Times article titled “As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Worsens Its Spread” points out: “In China, many workers are employed informally and so cannot count on social services if they take time off — especially those in service jobs that require regular contact with other people. As a result, the people who can least afford care are often at greatest risk of transmission.”
Inequality in staring at us in the face and yet we choose to look away. A worldwide crisis like the coronavirus only broadens the cracks in society, but it’s more apparent in India that elsewhere. Even as we are confined to our homes, we expect milk and newspaper to be delivered at our doorstep, our garbage to be collected, our cars to be washed and our houses to be swabbed. The doodhwala, paperwala, dhobis have no choice but to trudge along to work every day – lest they lose their wages. The truth is, they won’t be able to self-isolate, and do we really care enough that they do?
Pallavi is a freelancer who writes, makes small designs on Canva, and crafts trips. She loves satire, Neruda, and poor jokes. After quitting her marketing job when her soul collapsed, she ran off to Sikkim to volunteer at a hostel. What started as a simple life of selling her hand-painted bookmarks and learning to cook with rum, has become a full lifestyle that she couldn’t change if she wanted to.