The Indian Lock-down

For the last 30 days the Indian government has imposed the biggest lockdown in human history. The movements and work of over a billion people have been effectively shut. Public offices are closed, vital public transport has been stopped. Cities with millions of inhabitants appear like ghost towns with empty streets shuttered shops and offices. These are the measures the Indian government has implemented to combat the spread of the coronavirus, possibly the greatest pandemic in the 21st century. Hidden from view, is the suffering of the most vulnerable sections of the working class and peasantry who rely on daily earnings to sustain themselves, and migrant labourers who suddenly find themselves stuck in their work cities without any means of returning home. Against their immiserization, migrant workers and daily wagers have protested across the country, in some instances these have turned violent.
By Adhiraj Bose, from India
It was not a surprise that the right wing government was vicious towards the poor of this country, and held nothing but contempt towards the vast majority of Indians who are working men and women. What the lockdown reveals was that it is also colossally incompetent in its approach.
The chronology of the virus in India
The first reported case was that of a student returning from Wuhan in China to Thrissur district in Kerala, this was reported on the 30th of January. Since then, India began screening international travelers, but no ban or quarantining measures were implemented. International flights continued to operate and the risk of overseas Indians returning from countries affected by the virus remained a threat. Indeed, till the beginning of the lockdown on 24th march, the vast majority of early cases being reported were of people with a history of foreign travel who had just returned, or of individuals who had been in contact with such individuals. Yet, despite the risks, and despite knowing full well of the contagious nature of the virus, the government chose to avoid taking necessary early steps in implementing wider quarantine and travel restrictions till the 11th of March. On February 24th the Modi government rolled the red carpet for the US president Donald Trump in an event called ‘Namaste Trump’ . Thousands had gathered for it in the city of Ahmedabad.
Through the month of march more and more cases came to light, some of them like that of the Kanika Kapoor case highlighted the brazenness of the Indian elite. Kanika Kapoor was a wealthy pop singer who had thrown a grand party at her home in Haryana, she would eventually test positive for the coronavirus along with some of her relatives who had attended her ‘house warming party’. She had hid her travel history from the authorities. In another instance, a student from Kolkata who had returned from England tested positive for the virus. He had hid his travel history from the authorities and was tested positive only after showing symptoms.The failure of the authorities to effectively trace and monitor would lead to a much larger problem when the virus did begin expanding, yet the government clearly dragged it’s feet on the issue. It wasn’t until the 22nd of March (about 51 days after the first reported case of the virus) that the government decided to act with a “one day self-quarantine” .
The Modi government in its usual blusterous fashion, announced self-quarantine on a Sunday, with a call to bang utensils to show solidarity in a time of crisis. Even this ‘self-quarantine’ was rather ironically broken by the most zealous supporters of the government who came out on the streets, sometimes making a festival of banging utensils. Many had rightly guessed that this would be a primer for a nationwide lockdown, and the government’s method of easing the population into it. The lockdown was announced on the 24th of March and originally intended for 21 days, Since the implementation of the lockdown, all the shortcomings of the government’s preparations and the shortcomings of India’s healthcare infrastructure came to light.
The trains were shut, the planes were grounded, and trucks and road transport came to a halt. Industries and shops closed overnight, banks, utilities, and businesses suddenly closed down throwing millions of people out of work, particularly those who were employed on a contract or casual basis.
A crisis decades in the making
When the pandemic hit India, our healthcare system was woefully unprepared to handle it. This was no secret, but it was only after the fact that the weakness of Indian healthcare came to light. At the outset India found itself handicapped for not having enough doctors A study from 2019 shows that India is missing 6,00,000 doctors and 2 million nurses. Add to this the fact, that India has one of the most privatized healthcare systems in the world, immediately the vast majority of Indians who are poor can’t afford access to healthcare, this despite having universal healthcare coverage. Most publicly owned hospitals lack necessary staff, equipment and infrastructure to handle a large inflow of patients and can’t even afford to pay their medicare workers enough.
Junior doctors, nurses and staff have been agitating for years for better pay, better protection and recognition of their demands without the government budging on the issue. Now that India is in the grip of a pandemic, it is the healthcare workers who are on the forefront in the fight against the virus. It is also the medical workers who have been found to be the most exposed to the virus, especially given the paucity of adequate protective gear.Masks, gloves, and other gear were all in short supply throughout the country, while production has only just been ramped up, in the early days India was forced to rely entirely on imports to meet its requirements. A fallout from this was a spike of cases where medical workers were found diagnosed with coronavirus. The most glaring case of this was Mumbai’s Wockhartd hospital which had to be turned into a quarantine zone.
Such cases of infections among medical workers and professionals are doubly dangerous in the Indian context where neither do we have enough hospital beds to treat patients, nor do we have enough number of doctors and nurses to treat patients. The quality of care from the professionals vary as well, with medical quackery being an endemic problem in India. Of the availability of beds and ventilators and other critical equipment, less said the better ! India has only 713,986 beds for a population over a billion, that amounts to a paltry half a bed for a thousand people. The number of ventilators, essential for treating critical cases, the disparity becomes even more stark.
At the same time Indian phramaceutical industry, while lauded for its role in generic drug supply to the world, still suffers from lack of adequate research and development. Research and development for new vaccines and anti-microbial drugs have slowed down since the 1960s due to lack of profitable investment in this field. For most of its history since independence, India has ignored its healthcare sector and allowed the rise of a vicious, exploitative profit driven healthcare sector which throws fifty seven million people into poverty every year. All of this has now come to a head in this time of pandemic as India finds itself unbelievably strained to fight the pandemic. As late as November of 2019 India was spending a paltry 1.29% of its GDP on healthcare. As a total of budgeted expanse, India’s expenditure on healthcare is lower than its expenditure on rail transport and less than a third of what India spends on the ministry of defense. The neglect towards healthcare has come to bite India, and it is the poor and working class who suffer the most.
The class divide
After the Prime Minister’s appeal, his most virulent supporters, who are overwhelmingly from among the middle and upper middle classes, turned the lockdown and the quarantine measures into a celebratory moment. They banged their utensils when he told them to, they lit torches when he asked them to light candles, all the while medical workers and doctors were falling sick, treating coronavirus patients, and pleading for adequate protective gear. He calls them heroes on his tv broadcast but censors them and threatens with arrest when they raise these legitimate issues about India’s healthcare infrastructure.
While the middle class and star celebrities were extolling the virtues of social distancing, remaining home and making videos about what they did under lockdown, the working class, especially migrant workers, were suffering. After the initial lockdowns migrant workers were literally stranded in their cities of work, since train services and road transport was curtailed, they took to walking back home, often these would involve treks over hundreds of miles. Many simply died along the way, either due to exhaustion or accidents. The march home had for many turned into a march of death. The authorities often resorted to heavy handed tactics to curb the movements of migrants and enforce social distancing and lockdown measures. Policemen patrolling empty streets beating migrant labourers were a common sight, even children were not spared from the cane of the of the police. At one point government authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh, governed by a religious fundamentalist Yogi Adityanath, had resorted to spraying migrants with disinfectants in scenes reminiscent of the early 20th century United States, where Mexican migrants were sprayed before being allowed in to work. This was not the only humiliation they had to endure during this lockdown, video footage exists of policemen in the same state forcing migrants to walk on their knees. The toll of this humiliation, the loss of earning, the hardship of travel has led to endemic suicides among migrant workers. One study suggests up to two hundred may have died from the effects of the lockdown among migrant workers, most of them being deaths due to starvation, exhaustion, police brutality or loss of income. ( ) .
When reports started coming out of the plight of workers, the right wing government, who in any case think of the poor as less than human, was caught with its pants down. Immediately they rushed to bring busses to transport migrant workers to their home states, these caused massive crowds in cities like Delhi and Mumbai where most migrant workers go for their work. For most within Northern India, their home state lay in the far Eastern states of Bihar, Jharhkhand and West Bengal. In the South it is typically either Eastern states or from Tamil Nadu. These are usually hundreds of miles from the main economic centers of india in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. The government never thought to consider the impact of the lockdown when it was suddenly proclaimed on the 24th of March, they never considered the cascading effects of such a massive and sudden disruption to the poorest sections of the working class for whom their daily earnings are everything. Food scarcity compounded to the point where scenes of workers scraping for food, eating spilled milk from streets beside dogs.
After all these hardships, workers have not taken these humiliations and deprivations lying down. Recently there was a massive protest gathering in Surat and Mumbai by migrant workers demanding food, or transport back home. In a few cases workers have even rioted over food. With transports curbed and police patrols putting fear into people, food supplies have fallen across the board. Markets appear barren, and people are starving. The deaths from starvation are not being systematically reported, and the mainstream media, always in the lap of the government, have been doing little but lauding the government for its ‘decisive’ action in locking down the country, without regard to the hardships of the poor.
What this pandemic has taught us
The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the horrible state of healthcare in India and the sheer incapability of Indian capitalism to provide the most basic needs to the vast majority of its people. The weaknesses of Indian capitalism have only be exemplified by an insensitive and incompetent right wing reactionary government in power, in the form of the BJP and its ‘great leader’ Prime Minister Narendra Modi. An alternative model is given to us in the form of Kerala, the lone Indian state which has succeeded in flattening the curve of the contagion, and limited the number of deaths due to the virus. Despite the lockdown, Kerala has been able to ameliorate some of the worst effects of the lockdown on migrant workers and used a decentralized approach, rooted in scientific data and careful preparedness to combat the spread of the virus. Unlike most Indian states, Kerala is a state that has taken prevention seriously and invested well in the healthcare sector with an eye towards access to healthcare. (
Yet, even the Kerala model is not without its shortcomings, it continues to suffer from shortages of equipment, from funding, and from a shortage of doctors. A more radical solution is needed to fix Indian healthcare, in the very least it should begin with a massive increase in healthcare spending including emphasis on medical research. Private healthcare has proven how useless and inadequate it is in dealing with the most pressing demands for basic healthcare. Profit driven healthcare is nothing but grotesque and parasitical, feeding off the misery of the masses to fill its coffers. India, which has the most privatized healthcare in the world, stands as testament for the failure of privately owned profit driven medicare.
What the masses of India needs is a nationalized health service, run democratically and in the interests of the people. This requires a socialist solution , which goes well beyond the capabilities of what Indian capitalism is capable of delivering ! FOR A NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE ! This is a key moment in our history, and we cannot let irresponsible greed driven private hospitals hold the country hostage. NATIONALIZE THE HOSPITALS ! Not a penny to private healthcare !
At the same time, the Narendra Modi government has proven its viciousness against the poor, and its complete failure in dealing with a dire crisis such as the Coronavirus. Without any plan to care about what hardships the poor would face, the government arbitrarily imposed a lockdown, without a single measure to ameliorate the conditions of the working class. The crisis has exposed the class divide in Indian society and revealed in stark fashion, who are the most vulnerable sections of the Indian working class. We demand BAIL OUT THE POOR !  An immediate package to cover expenses of the poor to take care of rations and housing needs during the lockdown.
At the same time, migrant workers need a specialized transport to help in returning home from their place of work. OPEN THE TRAINS! LET THEM GO HOME! At the same time, proper measures must be taken to track and trace coming migrant workers a provision must be made in hospitals for their immediate treatment and quarantining.
Across the country, we are seeing a dual crisis caused by the lack of crucial medical infrastructure, deficit in healthcare workers, and a complete neglect of the public healthcare sector. While the crisis did not begin with the BJP, the present government has given it a new vicious dimension. For the avoidable deaths of migrant workers and the poor, for the suffering and chaos caused by the government’s delayed response against the threat of the virus, we must lay the blame for this crisis at the feet of the BJP and the Narendra Modi government.
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