COVID-19 lockdowns and their drastic impact on the poor in India and Pakistan

On Thursday, director-general of the World Health Organization said lockdown to limit COVID-19 transmission has ‘unintended consequences for the poorest’ and ‘most vulnerable’ [Danish Siddiqui/Reuters]

As the global community is grappling with the aftermath of COVID-19 outbreak, the impact, in terms of infections and deaths, has been less detrimental when it comes to South Asia. Amid the chaos, this might be considered somewhat positive for the region which is way behind the western standards of hospitals, healthcare and hospitals per person.

Source: WHO

Even though many anticipated the situation to be far worse for South Asia, especially India and Pakistan, the total cases, as of 7th April 2020, in India stand at 4426, whereas in Pakistan the number stands at 3864. These are very small numbers in comparison to the total number of global cases which currently stand at 1,347,803.

Global Infection Numbers
India’s Infection Numbers
Pakistan’s Infection Numbers

Having said that, keeping in view the poverty levels and domestic complications, both the governments have had to take strict measures to contain the spread of the virus and flatten the COVID-19 infection curve. However, where Pakistan took an incremental approach towards ordering a country-wide lockdown, India, on the other hand, India announced a three-week total lockdown on March 23, 2020. This has led to a strong reaction from daily-wage workers, many of whom broke the curfew and protested against the government’s decision. It is worth noting that a quarter of India’s 1.3 billion people live below the poverty line. Moreover, due to the country-wide lockdown and with most of the national transport shut down, many people have had to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes.

Ramaa Vasudevan, writing for The Wire, reflects on the Indian government’s ‘inhumane’ coronavirus policy in the following words:

The heart-wrenching images of long lines of migrants trudging hundreds of kilometres, with sparse belongings and children in tow, to return their village homes; of police beating and humiliating the desperate poor now adrift on the streets; of the hungry and tired being made to frog-jump and crawl on the roads by police enforcing the lock-down; returning migrant families huddled by the roadside being doused with chemical bleach by the administration are now seared in our collective memories.  These are the defining images of the response of the BJP-led Indian state to this extraordinary crisis.

Vasudevan also criticized the Modi Government’s instant decision to impose a country-wide lockdown, saying:

The working poor, the large numbers of migrants swelling the ranks of informal workers living a hand-to-mouth existence, on meagre daily earnings, are the most vulnerable in this crisis as economies go into lock-down.  Even if we accept that urgent need to curb the spread of the COVID-19 demands putting the entire economy in a state of induced coma, the manner in which the lock-down was announced and executed threatens to pull the plug on precisely those who need life-support.

An opinion piece in The Guardian also criticized India’s policy and called it cataclysmic for the poor. According to Indian economist Jayati Ghosh, the Indian government’s abrupt lockdown policy has been a disaster. Ghosh has warned that the “food shortages recently reported across India would only become more severe and widespread over the next two weeks”.

On the other hand, Pakistan, even though taking less stringent policy actions, has also faced its share of problems on COVID-19 infections in the country. Even though PM Imran Khan was initially under pressure to announce a full lockdown, he resisted all such calls inviting strong criticism on the social media. Even though the country has mostly remained in lockdown in the recent day, people in many rural and urban areas are adamant on going to the mosques for congregational prayers. Moreover, the daily wage workers in the country have faced further hardships as the construction industry, employing most of the daily wage labour force, is at a standstill.

In addition to that, doctors and medical staff in the country have complained and protested that they lack protective equipment to treat the infected patients. In this regard, on Monday, more than 100 protestors demonstrated against the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and goggles, in Quetta. More than 50 doctors taking part in the protest were arrested by the police.

Even though the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the lack of healthcare facilities in South Asia, it is the poor section of the population both in India and Pakistan that has fallen victim to the financial and economic detriments of the pandemic.

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