Written by Ajay Saini
Since May 10, numerous graphic images from India – bloated and partly burnt corpses of “suspected Covid victims” washing up on the banks of the Ganga – had started making headlines in the national and international media. Barely a week later, Dainik Bhaskar broke a horrifying “ground report”, revealing over 2,000 dead bodies on the banks of the Ganga, spread across several districts of India’s largest state (by population), Uttar Pradesh. Reporters confirmed the apocalypse that the authorities had been loudly denying since April 2021, when the country began to witness a massive surge in deaths amidst the raging second wave of Covid. As of May 30, India remains amongst the world’s worst coronavirus-hit countries – 27,892,629 confirmed cases, and 325,985 deaths (actual figures could be much higher) – surpassed only by the United States.
Pandemics are known to hold up a mirror to the societies that they ravage. What truth does Covid tell us about India? It is needless to emphasise that the government has mishandled the crisis; or that the country is paying a heavy price for keeping public healthcare a low priority – the annual budget expenditure on which has remained abysmally low (1.29 per cent of GDP in 2019-20).
India’s Covid catastrophe also reveals something sinister that has largely evaded our attention – the age-old socio-economic inequalities, which continue to plague its society. It is these structural inequalities that create and perpetuate vulnerabilities by relegating millions of people into an abyss of misery during crises such as Covid.
In March 2020, when Covid made its presence felt, the Indian government responded by imposing an abrupt nationwide shutdown – one amongst the world’s strictest – that soon became a tragedy for millions of migrant workers living precariously in cities. A large number of these internal migrants belong to two historically marginalised groups – Adivasis and Dalits who constitute 8.6 per cent and 16.6 per cent of India’s population, respectively.
After the lockdown, the migrant workers were trapped in alien cities. For want of food, they set out on foot for their distant villages; enduring immense hardships, violence, and humiliation, they covered hundreds or thousands of miles. Several perished midway due to exhaustion, hunger, and accidents. Eventually, around 11 million returned to their home states; while India chronicled its biggest internal migration since 1947.
By the end of December 2020, Covid had subsided, which lulled India into a false sense of security. But a raging second wave arrived in mid-March 2021, instantly bringing India to its knees. The critical medical facilities crumbled, and the citizens of the world’s second-most populous country were left to their dreadful fate.
While several heart-wrenching visuals from cities (such as Delhi) grabbed the media’s attention and provoked wide indignation; the populace facing a lethal virus in rural India failed to get similar coverage and support.
Thousands of these “other” Indians met a tragic end. Their deaths neither became news, nor statistics. Families – too poor to afford the burgeoning costs of dignified cremation/burial – secretly immersed the corpses of their loved ones in the Ganga; or buried them in shallow sandy graves on the banks. One wonders how many dead in rural India are yet to be discovered – buried during the second wave in deep forests, hills, or on the rivers’ banks.
In the past weeks, the new Covid cases in India have declined. But the virus is fast gaining ground in rural India – over 60 per cent cases were recently reported from rural (35 per cent) and semi-rural (30 per cent) regions – where around 65 per cent of the country’s population lives with inadequate healthcare facilities.
The rural areas are badly trailing urban India in immunisation. Given the current vaccine shortage and lack of a dependable healthcare system, one wonders how millions of rural people will come to terms with a disaster of such magnitude, which is further exacerbated by the rural-urban disparities.
India’s 54.9 per cent of rural population falls in the two lowest quintiles of the wealth index, while 74.4 per cent of the urban population falls in the two highest quintiles. The states/Union territories also have glaring wealth disparities – Delhi has 62.8 per cent of its population in the highest wealth quintile (second highest in India), whereas states such as Bihar (51.2 per cent) and Jharkhand (46.1 per cent) have the highest percentages of the population in the lowest quintile.
Such regional and wealth disparities have put an excessive burden of the pandemic on the vulnerable, especially those inhabiting rural areas and the poorest states. Covid particularly threatens India’s 705 Adivasi communities (75 particularly vulnerable groups) – the poorest and the most marginalised section – that suffers from “extremely poor physical health.”
Around 90 per cent of Adivasis inhabit rural areas, and 40.6 per cent of their total population is below the poverty line, as against 20.5 per cent of the non-Adivasi. The majority of the Adivasis (70.7 per cent) fall in the two lowest wealth quintiles (45.2 per cent in the lowest), followed by Dalits (50.1 per cent).
The Adivasis have “very limited access to healthcare services”. A recent report of the expert committee on tribal health reveals that they share a greater burden of sickness and mortality, and have poorer health indicators – lower life expectancy, 65 per cent of Adivasi women (age 15-49 years) suffer from anaemia, 25 per cent pregnant/lactating women and 29 per cent to 32 per cent children get inadequate protein and calories, 50 per cent malaria deaths in India occur among Adivasis, and around 75 per cent of Adivasi adults suffer from hypertension.
India’s historical wealth inequality, which has increased alarmingly since the 1990s, has led to disparities in access to basic amenities and opportunities that undermine the well-being of marginalised millions.
Amid the raging pandemic, India is having its moment of reckoning. A democratic country that had “solemnly resolved” to constitute itself into a socialist republic, let its top 1 per cent of people corner 51.53 per cent of the national wealth; while the bottom 60 per cent were left with a bare minimum, 4.8 per cent.
The pandemic tells the truth about India loud and clear: While measures such as evidence-based policymaking and robust public healthcare system are crucial for the suppression of Covid (and other future epidemics), the country will achieve little success without resolving its age-old socio-economic inequalities that have given a fertile breeding ground to the coronavirus by leaving millions highly vulnerable.
The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi