If we become complacent, and drop our guard, infections can rise. That affects us all
Around this time last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Indians were given four hours’ notice before the order took effect. “From 12 midnight tonight, the entire country will go under a complete lockdown,” Mr Modi said. “To save India and every Indian, there will be a total ban on venturing out of your homes.” The initial clampdown was for 21 days.
A year on, where are we? That question is the big story in our lives.
Many of us have lost loved ones, jobs, watched our savings evaporate, been sick ourselves. Most of us have no choice but to tap our inner strengths as we cope with everyday challenges in the time of a pandemic.
It is not a totally bleak picture. Vaccines are available now and we are likely to see a huge scale-up in the government’s immunisation drive in the coming weeks. But alongside, worryingly, we are also seeing a big surge in Covid-19 cases in many parts of the country and a disconcerting general disregard for safety protocols. India’s new Covid-19 cases had peaked at nearly 100,000 a day in September and had been declining steadily until late last month.
Two recent surveys give us a sense of just how bad the economic situation is.
The first one relates to the situation in New Delhi, the nation’s capital.
According to a recent survey by the Delhi government, the unemployment rate in Delhi was 11.1 per cent before the onset of the pandemic and it shot up to 28.5 per cent during October-November 2020, an increase of 17.4 per cent. The male unemployment rate was 8.7 per cent before the pandemic; it increased to 23.2 per cent, an increase of 14.5 per cent. The female unemployment rate was 25.6 per cent before the pandemic and went up to 54.7 per cent, an increase of 29.1 per cent, in the same period. The average monthly income of employed persons in the city before the pandemic was Rs 16,511. It dipped to Rs 15,383, a reduction of 6.8 per cent in the average monthly income during October-November last year.
In the past year, on the whole, the worst-affected sectors have been construction, food and beverages, service activities, education, wholesale and retail trade, services to buildings and landscape activities, information service activities, land transport, security and investigation activities, human health activities and wearing apparel manufacturing.
The survey was conducted last year, and arguably things have improved since then. But here is the catch, signs of economic activity do not necessarily mean that workers are getting their due wages. From my personal conversations with scores of people in the informal service sector, I know that many are still getting a fraction of their former wages and many who are without work.
In January this year, I met Naresh Kumar, 55, in one of the “pagoda” style temporary refuges in winter in the Bangla Sahib shelter run by an NGO. Mr Kumar told me he used to earn his living as a waiter, mostly at weddings. For the last one and half months, he had been at the shelter. He had no work for the past year. He was picked up by a rescue van and brought to the shelter. He had no identity documents. Naresh Kumar feared going back to sleeping in the streets once the temporary shelter closed down. I wonder where he is today….
Even in tony South Delhi enclaves, it is not uncommon to find people in the beauty, wellness and hospitality industry complaining of getting less than their salary. They can’t quit their jobs because there are few new opportunities in the market.
Though the unemployment rate is gradually decreasing in the city, the implementation of a job guarantee scheme is very much needed to revive the national capital’s economy scarred by the coronavirus pandemic.
The survey tells us that people at the bottom of the income hierarchy were among the worst affected. Those with no or minimal education lost jobs in far greater numbers than those with a simple diploma.
This is not just in Delhi or India’s big cities. Across the country, not only have the number of the poor increased, leading to a sharp spike in the global increase in poverty, a new Pew Research Centre analysis talks about the retreat of India’s middle class in 2020. The middle class in India is estimated to have shrunk by 32 million last year as a direct fallout of the economic downturn, compared with the number it may have reached without the pandemic, it says.
Understandably, people are tired and craving for normalcy and economic recovery. But let’s face it -- we are in the middle of two crises -- the coronavirus pandemic and the one impacting the economy. Both intersect.
We have the vaccine. But as scientists keep reminding us, the vaccine doesn’t herald a full stop to the pandemic just yet. Nicholas Christakis, a physician, epidemiologist, and sociologist at Yale University, says the coronavirus pandemic will continue to affect our lives through 2021 and beyond. He talks about it in detail his new book Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.
When the virus is surrounded by people who are vaccinated, it has nowhere to go and thus outbreaks are suppressed, he says. Until such a state of herd immunity is reached, mask-wearing, hand washing with soap and social distancing will have to necessarily remain.
A lot has changed since 2020. For many, hugging a loved one is a fantasy with restrictions on mobility still in place. New protocols for health safety have drastically changed our everyday lives in the past year. No one knows just how long it will take us to bounce back psychologically, socially and economically in the long term. There are still many uncertainties about the virus and variants are popping up.
But we know that a spike in coronavirus cases in India would dent the green shoots of the economic recovery as fresh curbs will kick in to prevent a new wave from gaining momentum. We must do everything we can to ensure that does not happen.
We must beat the virus, but that can happen only if everyone sees it as a shared interest and shared fate. If we become complacent, and drop our guard, infections can rise. That affects us all.