From India to the United States, from Britain to Brazil, the pandemic has exposed deep fissures in many societies. The protests in the United States against systemic racism and inequality also reflect the unequal devastation caused by the disease. How societies will rebuild, and make themselves resilient in the face of new crises, will depend on how they address inequality and governance.
The searing images of lakhs of Indian workers, men, women and young children, walking hundreds of miles to their homes will remain among the most tragic memories of COVID-19. In large parts of India, the economic devastation is preceding the impending health catastrophe. In India, 425 million workers are in the informal sector (about 90 percent of the workforce).
There are almost 60 million inter-state migrants and many more who migrate within a state, who were trapped when the lockdown was announced. Hundreds of millions of people work in low paid, insecure jobs, with limited or no savings – and two months of closure have pushed many into poverty.
COVID-19 cases are rising dramatically in big Indian cities where living conditions are atrocious for the majority of the people. About 40 percent of households of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, lives in slums. One in five urban Indian households lives in similar conditions. To be absolutely clear, the Census of India defines a slum as a residential area that is unfit for human habitation. The spread of the disease is almost inevitable in such conditions. Furthermore, with health facilities concentrating on treatment of COVID-19, other diseases , such as tuberculosis, that affect the poor are being neglected. With a heavy burden of respiratory diseases, arising from air pollution, these sections of the population are at high risk to the disease, Many, faced with loss of income, will be unable to afford any health care.
We are fortunate that the situation in Kerala has been managed much better than in other parts of the world. Testing and isolation started early based on the public health system; the lockdown was implemented in a planned way; local governments were mobilized; workers from other states were housed and fed until they could be transported back; food was delivered to millions of people. Lessons had been learnt from earlier infectious outbreaks and from the floods that ravaged the state. Yet, Kerala will face enormous challenges to deal with the economic repercussions as well as the health risks posed by returning migrants from the Gulf.
Equally shocking are the disparities in the rich countries. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the poor, African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities in the United States and Britain. Mortality rates are significantly higher amongst these groups. About 40 million Americans – a quarter of the workforce- were out of work by the end of May. About half the African American adult population is without a job. Tens of millions of people are living on handouts from foodbanks. Behind the façade of wealth, a large section of the population is living in precarious conditions.
The pandemic has shown how the world is deeply interconnected. Events in one place produce tsunamis across the world. The lockdown in Wuhan led to the disruption of supply chains, including for vital health equipment and supplies. International travel ground to a halt, affecting tourism, the airline and hotel industries. And the protests in the United States are producing reverberations around the world.
Inclusive governance is essential to whether governments have been able to respond effectively to reduce mortality and the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the poor. Strong public health systems and safety nets are required. But above all, success has depended on whether governments have acted to protect all citizens. Inclusive governance will be important if societies are to confront the new challenges of our era.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown the fragility of the foundations of the economy. Progress has so far been largely at the expense of the environment. As humans have encroached on wild areas, new strains of viruses have been able to jump from wild animals to humans. Environmental destruction and pollution is now threatening human societies in many ways. Climate change will disrupt people’s livelihoods even more in the future and may make vast parts of the planet uninhabitable. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, storm surges and extreme weather events are going to increase. It is not enough to go back to “pre-COVID” times. It is necessary to build a new future.
In the coming months, VMFT will explore the effects of COVID-19 on Kerala and other parts of India and what it means for social justice and equality. It will participate actively in the debate on how to rebuild the economy and society on a fairer and more sustainable basis.