“Hunger will kill us before any disease does.” These were the harrowing words of Rampal, a rickshaw driver from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh who queues daily at a government-run food shelter.
Rampal’s words have already rung true for some. An eight-year-old boy named Rakesh Musahar, a resident of Arrah’s Jawahar Tola’s slum area in Bhojpur district, allegedly starved to death due to a lack of work. The child worked as a ragpicker and sold junk in the market while his father Durga Prasad Musahar was a porter.
The Indian government has imposed a 21-day lockdown on the country in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Despite the quarantine order, many are taking to the streets regardless. Many do so because they have no other choice.
His story featured in a Telegraph India report, Rampal has joined queues often numbering in the hundreds and sometimes even breaching into the thousands, in the hopes of obtaining food during the quarantine. Day labourers, the unemployed, the homeless, any who work day-to-day or who have been affected by economic stagnation compounded by the quarantine are now facing a dire choice: remain home and comply with social distancing measures (running the risk of starvation in the process), or breach the quarantine in search of a meal.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on announcing the lockdown, told citizens that it represented “a total ban on venturing out of your homes.” The 21-day lockdown, he said, is “a necessary step in the decisive fight against [the] corona pandemic.”
Modi explained the lockdown through the prism of the impact coronavirus has had on many of the world’s most economically developed nations. “All of you are also witnessing how the most advanced countries of the world have been rendered absolutely helpless by this pandemic,” he said. “It is not that these countries are not putting in adequate efforts or they lack resources. The Coronavirus is spreading at such a rapid pace that despite all the preparations and efforts, these countries are finding it hard to manage the crisis.”
Since the lockdown, India has seen scores of day labourers and migrant workers fleeing the cities and attempting to return to their homes in towns and villages. This has led to the creation of considerable crowds, as well as faltering transport infrastructure. A large number simply attempted to walk — often hundreds of miles — back to their native villages. Many have failed in their attempts to leave, and have been effectively rendered homeless and without jobs.
Few of the individuals own masks or other safety equipment. Given the size of the crowds this presents ample opportunity for a mass outbreak of the novel coronavirus. “What option do I have? Where else can I go? I haven’t earned rupee in two days,” Rampal told The Telegraph India.
The Delhi government has asked the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) to provide free food to homeless and migrant workers. Such a measure would ease the burden and reduce the risk of deaths due to starvation. However, such mass gatherings, often exceeding the DUSIB shelter’s capability of serving 18,000, are potential hotspots for outbreaks of coronavirus.
“Delhi has a huge migrant population and a very large number of daily wagers. People working in the unorganised sector often don’t have large savings. They fall into destitution very quickly. Unless there is decentralisation of cooked food, a very large number of people will start reaching these centres,” commented food rights campaigner Anjali Bhardwaj to The Press Trust of India.
Coronavirus has spread to almost every country and territory on Earth, sparing no country irrespective of their levels of economic development. As of the time of writing there are 799,723 cases, with 38,720 associated deaths. 169,988 individuals have recovered from the condition, leaving 591,015 active cases — which, as of yet, are currently ravaging both Europe and the US, with Italy, Spain and the US now surpassing the reported case count of China where the pandemic originated.
India is bracing for its own explosion of cases. Over the weekend the reported case count in India exceeded 1,000, with cases present across almost all states and union territories. Such dispersion is likely to make containment efforts difficult. This is not aided by the number of individuals who are not complying with quarantine measures, by choice or otherwise.
“The Indian government is facing an extraordinary challenge to protect over a billion densely packed people, but ramped-up efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in India need to include rights protections,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should recognize that malnourishment and untreated illness will exacerbate problems and should ensure that the most marginalised don’t bear an unfair burden from lack of essential supplies.”
For those living paycheck-to-paycheck, or day labourers paid cash-in-hand, the quarantine measures have quickly destroyed their way of life and left them with next to nothing. Should the quarantine last longer than the 21 days first announced by Modi, these issues will need to be addressed. The alternative is that India could well see thousands of the most vulnerable in society — those that the quarantine was issued to protect — die from starvation before COVID-19 even has a chance to strike.