In a country where the vast majority are informal sector workers, the situation has been particularly grim for those at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain in a slowing economy. (Representational Image/ AFP)
The Covid-19 pandemic is no longer a compelling newsmaker. Partly, it is because of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The deaths and devastation in the war zone and the invasion’s knock-on effect in other countries, including India, has edged out many issues from prime-time television and newspaper front pages. But partly it is also because many believe that the pandemic is finally entering its endgame.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak a global pandemic. Two years down the line, scientists are cautiously optimistic. Many countries are talking in terms of "living with Covid 19". Millions of people across the world, however, remain unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated. As long as that is so, the virus can circulate and there may be potentially new, unpredictable variants.
In India, daily Covid-19 cases are declining. Early this week, there were 4,362 fresh infections and 66 new deaths in a span of 24 hours, bringing the total number of Covid deaths to 515,210 as of the morning of March 8. More than 75 per cent of those above 15 years in the country now have had two doses. This sharply reduces the probability of death or being severely affected. Of course, we need to also remember that Omicron arrived last year just when the endgame enthusiasm was gathering momentum. This time around, many of us are fully vaccinated and a little bit more relaxed.
But here is the catch. Just because the pandemic is not a big headline-grabber anymore does not mean that it is yesterday’s story.
Here is why.
The Covid-19-ravaged may be free of the virus but they have not fully recovered. We must not invisibilise their lingering distress.
Today, we are aware of the condition called "Long Covid", but we don’t really know much about its long-term complications. The virus affected different people in different ways. Many friends who caught the virus months ago are still struggling with fatigue, weakness and other health issues. Many have been forced to dip into their savings to pay for hospitalisation and other medical bills during the pandemic. Many are deep in debt at a time when their earnings are stagnant or have plummeted.
If this is the lot of the middle class, imagine what the poor are going through. The pandemic affected everyone, but not equally. In a country where the vast majority are informal sector workers, the situation has been particularly grim for those at the bottom of the socio-economic food chain in a slowing economy.
Recent rapid surveys by civil society organisations suggest that India’s poor, especially those in cities, have sharply cut down on their food budget. This affects not only adults but also children.
Hunger Watch 2, a survey commissioned by India’s Right to Food Campaign and the Centre for Equity Studies between December 2021 to January 2022, found that 66 per cent of the 6,500 respondents across 14 states who had been interviewed had experienced a fall in their incomes as compared to the pre-pandemic period. And for quite a few, it was a steep fall.
According to the survey, aimed at assessing economic distress among the marginalised sections in the wake of the second wave, 41 per cent said the nutritional quality of their diet had deteriorated compared to the pre- pandemic levels. This proportion was higher among urban than rural households.
"What should I cook? We did not have any gas. So, I gathered stone and sticks and survived on khichdi for two months," one family told the researchers.
"Our condition has not changed much from that time. Sometimes there is food and other times there is no food. My husband does any work that is available," one of the respondents said. For this family, any kind of vegetables is now a privilege. "We have it once every 5-7 days, that too without onions. We just mix it in khichdi and eat."
Another survey by Protsahan India Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO, between December 2021 and January 2022 among slum communities in the city, found many 18-plus girls are being pushed into marriage after they finish Class 12.
Their parents say they can’t afford to spend money any longer on their education.
The other big issue is lack of social protection for small children. Many small factories that provided work to slum residents have shut. Those which are still operational aren’t able to give enough work or regular payments to their employees. Families were in acute economic distress and forced into taking loans just to survive. The weekend lockdowns earlier this year also affected small shop owners making a living out of selling bangles, clothes, slippers, etc.
Customers are returning, but slowly. Just about every shop owner I have spoken to in recent days says the demand is nowhere near what it was in pre-pandemic times.
It will take a long time to fully grasp the pandemic’s deep impact on India’s children. Recent research by Save the Children shows that only a third (33 per cent) of girls in India attended online classes during the Covid-19 lockdown, compared to 39 per cent of boys.
What does this mean for progress in addressing gender inequalities in education and are achievements of past decades risk being reversed?
A majority of adolescent girls in urban slums were deprived of basic health and education services compared to boys during the pandemic, the Save the Children Wings 2022 report notes.
These civil society surveys provide just a snapshot of Covid-19’s footprint across India, especially on vulnerable communities.
With food inflation and the likelihood of soaring petrol prices in the coming days, the situation will get much worse before it gets better. One area we must track in the coming days is mental health. We may never really know the magnitude of the mental health crisis facing India in the wake of Covid-19 but it is worth acknowledging the serious situation that existed even in pre-pandemic days. According to the National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-2016, around 10 per cent of adults in the country meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition. The prevalence of mental morbidity was found to be high in Indian urban metros.
How much worse are things now? We don’t really know.
There may not be desperate appeals for oxygen cylinders and ventilators of the kind we saw during Covid-19’s second wave. But the pandemic story is far from over. We must follow its long shadow over every sphere of our lives.