OPINION: The Novel Coronavirus And Its Impact On The Most Marginalised Communities

Amnesty International India
14 April 2020 3:23 pm

The long rows of women, men, children with only their life belongings packed in bags marching towards a home, their village, not knowing what their near future will hold for them is a picture that will continue to haunt this country long after this pandemic is over.

Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it, social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognizes liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life. – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

We are today remembering Babasaheb Ambedkar who believed in freedom and democracy, a deeper freedom that advocated not only for political democracy but social democracy. In this pandemic caused by the Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, there is a stream of thought that is going around – for COVID-19 there is no distinction between rich and poor, no haves and no have nots, everyone is hit by the pandemic.

This is partly true. The novel coronavirus does not discriminate, it affects everyone. However, the ability to withstand the attack of COVID-19 and the ability to overcome the distress caused by it varies from the rich to the poor, from the haves to the have nots. It is clear that people from marginalised communities are impacted disproportionately, especially the women and children from these communities.

In several of the Indian states, we hear community members and associates narrate stories of how migrant workers, Safai Karamcharis, sanitation workers, and those aides who are cleaning hospitals and wards, are Dalits or Adivasis.

The manual scavengers and the garbage pickers have no PPEs or protective gear. Other than a mask, they have not been given extra gloves or plastic wraps to keep themselves safe. Dalits and Adivasis are not only disproportionately affected by Covid-19, their difficult social circumstances also stand in the way of their ability to recover.

In addition, while all of us are at home maintaining physical distance, they are forced to continue to serve us and clean our surroundings to keep us safe. When the news of COVID-19 broke, everyone wanted to stay indoors, protect themselves and create a cocoon. But while the rich and elite are doing this, the poor still come to pick up the garbage, still clean the roads and still continue to deliver essential goods. This is happening at a risk that they have taken either due to perhaps their lack of knowledge or for the mere need to survive. Whatever may be the reason, they are there and the government needs to ensure their protection.

Narratives of discrimination amidst the Novel Coronavirus pandemic

There are also narratives of discrimination based on caste and gender that are coming to the fore. Many are shunned away from purchasing rations and from entering camps for COVID-19 protection. It is the migrant and the homeless that are most affected! Among them, the Dalit migrants are further discriminated from reaching for relief.

While planning for COVID-19 mitigation, we have to account for the layers of discrimination and exclusion, and start at the most excluded. This will by default ensure that everyone else is included and no one is left behind by design or pushed back by our caste structure.

While the country is grappling with the pandemic, Dalits residing in rural areas are still grappling with the fear of violence and atrocities on their homesteads by the dominant castes.

In the name of containing community transmission of the novel coronavirus, Dalits are being prevented from using main streets and roads. Such incidents bring back the despicable memories of untouchability, wherein Dalits were not allowed to even enter villages.

Around 1200 Dalits in the Atmakur Mandal, Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, are required to travel through the main road of the SC Colony (Scheduled Caste Colony) to KJ Road. However, some of the leaders from the dominant castes are not allowing these Dalits to use this public road. As a consequence the main road is now barred for entry for Dalits. Furthermore, rumours are being spread that there are positive cases of COVID-19 in the SC colony and anyone who dares to protest this unfair propaganda is being harassed. Threats, such as the entire SC colony will be burnt down if anyone tries to trespass into the main road, are being made.

Besides the dominant caste offenders have resorted to calling Dalits by their caste in an attempt to show their might and humiliate them. The Dalit victims residing in the colony have now approached the Atmakur police station seeking help and protection.

Babasaheb’s dream of achieving social democracy is still a distant dream.

Arrests of human rights activists

On one hand, while this is happening, today, 14 April, is also a dark day in the annals of human rights in our country. Dr. Anand Teltumbde and Adv. Gautam Navlakha will be complying with the Supreme Court’s order to surrender today.

Anand, as many of us are aware, is one of India’s foremost intellectuals and one of the strongest advocates of Ambedkar’s thoughts on the struggle for liberty, fraternity and equality. He will be surrendering today at the Sessions Court in Mumbai. This is both tragic and shameful for all Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, and minorities as well as those who have stood for the Indian Constitution and its democratic values. This is an example of how the wider society with its virulent casteist forces is strengthened by the State with its strictures, against those who fight caste-based violence and discrimination. They are literally sought out and harassed with false cases.

Access to health and livelihoods during the pandemic

To talk of public health, the pittance that is allocated for health in this country to those who need it the most is appalling. Data reveals that India spends only 1.28% of its GDP on health. Meanwhile, developed countries like the USA spend over 17% of their total GDP on health and yet they are struggling to meet the budget needed for coping with the pandemic.

What do these figures tell us?  That a country like India with a population of about 1.2 billion people spending so little on health is both absurd and in need of urgent attention.

If one were to look at the large population of people not having access to public health, it shows the need to look at increasing the budget for health in this country. This does not mean merely increasing the budget but also instating state-of-art facilities and building public health systems that are available and accessible to marginalised communities and the poor.

Several studies show that migration to vulnerable occupations are dominated by economically and socially disadvantaged groups. Around 40% to 47% of distress migrant workers constitute of the SCs. In contrast, those from dominant castes form only 13% in these vulnerable occupations. Millions of impoverished men, women and children in India, many of whom are SC/STs, migrate from the countryside each year to cities – in crowded trains, buses, trucks and sometimes on foot – their modest belongings bundled over their heads, in search of the opportunities and means to survive. Many of those intend to stay for a short season and some stay for years. Many of them tend to drift quickly to low-end, low-paid, vulnerable occupations – rickshaw pulling, garbage picking, construction workers, domestic workers etc. They live in Juggi-Jhopdis, makeshift shanties or on streets.

Their wage rates tend to be exploitative, illegal and uncertain, work hours tend to be long, and conditions of employment, unhealthy and unsafe. Most of them do not possess proper IDs and so their access to PDS (Public Distribution System) is highly restricted. Even though their economic contribution to urban areas is huge and their burden on the exchequer is low to negligible, they are not treated with respect and their contribution goes unrecognised and ill-documented.

As one can imagine, the impact is doubled when it comes to Dalit and Adivasi women and children during this crisis. Most schools have moved to online classes, which may sound easy and nice. But who are the children that have access to computers and to the internet from eight in the morning to noon? The idea of having online education is an elitist idea that does not take into account millions of children, who do not have access to resources and will lose out on their education as a result of this lockdown. Many women from the migrant labour community are in the construction industry or work as domestic help in metropolitan cities, they too will face the brunt of this lockdown and might also face domestic violence in their homes.

Going beyond the one-size-fits-all response

A “one-size-fits-all” strategy will not work to fight COVID-19, the inequalities are evident and will continue to rise amongst the poor and marginalised communities. Special mechanisms need to be put into place to identify and make provisions available to the communities and measure the huge impact that this will have on the marginalised.

What an injustice it would be to the community if we utilise the services of the marginalised to keep the rest of us safe without a concern for their safety and sustenance.

Members from the communities in various states have shared that manual scavengers have not been allowed to go to work due to the lockdown and are struggling to survive without basic provisions. Forget about surviving weeks of lockdown, they will not be able to even survive days, as they lose their regular income and may not feature in the lists that the Government is creating to provide relief. This is a huge disappointment for the community that has invested its hard labour in the country. Today, the country is what it is because of the toil and sweat of the marginalised! This pandemic will continue to multiply its effects on the Dalits and Adivasis, impacting Dalit women and children even more.

Dr. BR Ambedkar says that almost every sphere of our social, economic, political life is driven by casteist values. There are around 48 forms of untouchability that are still practiced in India. As India develops in every sphere, the practice of untouchability follows virulently. This is found even during the times of COVID-19, when people refuse to eat food cooked by a Dalit and when Dalits are not allowed to use public roads. This situation will further be made worse through the casteist practices that people have become used to. Let us remember that while no-one can escape COVID-19, only the poor and disenfranchised peoples will face the real brunt of it!

The ‘normal’ before the coronavirus will not be the normal that we know. In this crisis lies a deep and important message to humanity – we need to ensure that we respect the planet and all people, we need to think seriously of how this will impact us collectively in the long run.

Physical distancing will also draw lines of disparity, inequalities will continue to rise more and people at the lower rungs will be hit the hardest. Adequate resources should be allocated for social protection, livelihoods, housing and other entitlements and most importantly, health benefits must be provided to all with specific focus on Dalit and Adivasi women.

The core principles of non-discrimination, substantive equality and progressive realisation should be the basis on which recovery plans are made and executed. Social justice must dictate the implementation of these plans and people should be allowed to dream and hope again!

This guest blog is written by Paul Divakar, Chairperson, Asia Dalit Rights Forum & Beena Pallical, General Secretary, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this document are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Amnesty International India.

Featured image credit: Reuters / Amit Dave

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