It was early on a rainy morning in early August 2021, when the dreaded second wave was just abating. We drove to Company Bagh, in the Walled City of Old Delhi, to check if work had revived for Delhi’s casual daily wage workers. Thousands of these workers gather every morning on street corners in towns and cities across the country, in what are called labour chowks, waiting for employers who pick them up for work, any kind of work.
Company Bagh, grandly named for its colonial past, is now a few unkempt shrubs and near it is a bend on a humble street corner where specifically homeless casual wage seekers gather in search of work each morning. These workers are the most unprotected, even among daily wagers, because they have the backing of no union, no collective, no government, and not even a family. They are alone in the world, hungry, jobless and with zero bargaining power, zero protection.
And the employers know that.
A tsunami of sufferings
How the second Covid-19 devastated India.
Nearly a year and a half earlier, this is where we, in the Karwan e Mohabbat had begun our food solidarity work. Several thousand homeless men would mill around our food vans, desperate for some food, any food. These were workers who could not even escape the cruelly locked-down city, by joining the epic worker exodus of millions in the blistering, bitter summer of 2020.
After all, most single homeless men had cut all ties with their families, and homeless women had escaped to the streets to free themselves from intolerable domestic violence. They literally had nowhere else to go.
In the labour chowk this year, we saw now among them an even more aggravated desperation for work, any work, on any terms. Whenever a car or van would drive up to recruit workers, in no time fifty or a hundred workers would gather around them. Earlier, before the pandemic, a certain unwritten moral code prevailed among the dispossessed homeless workers, that they would not undercut each other, they would not compete when employers came looking for casual workers.
But jobs had become so scarce and their hunger so debilitating that this moral code had crumbled. The employer would offer wages well below the market rate and pick some men, but others would push forward, offering to work for even less. The rule that prevailed for employers, as one worker said to us wryly, was “Mehnat zyada, mazdoori kam” – more hard work for lower wages.
The dynamics had changed noticeably after the waves of lockdowns: the employer was even more powerful, and the worker even more powerless than ever before. A worker explained their predicament to us: “We do not have a rupee in our pockets. We have to eat, we have to survive. We are not getting any work. So whatever work we get, on whatever terms, we go”.
“Today we have reached a stage when we know that only 5% of those who pick us up for work will treat us well and pay our wages,” he went on. “The rest do not. We know that, but what can we do? We still have to go with whoever picks us up.”
One result of this desperation of single casual workers has been the revival of criminal and brutal bonded labour. A white-haired worker said, “They took me into a village in Gurgaon. A lot of the time, I was in chains. I worked for 2 months and 17 days.”
“I returned to Delhi with no money, only with the bruises of beatings,” he said. “They did not pay us any wages. They said they would settle our accounts only when they chose to set us free. One worker helped me escape one night. And I am back here, with empty pockets, again looking for work, any work, anywhere.”
Many workers repeated versions of this same story. “I was hired for three months, but they forced me to stay with them for one year and two months,” another said. “They paid me nothing. Whenever I asked them for my wages, they showed me instead their rifle. I just had to run away”.
Desperation for work
The situation is the same in labour chowks around the country. Dipankar Ghose from The Indian Express found a similar mounting desperation among the 500-odd people waiting for work in the largest labour chowk in Aligarh.
“We sit here from 5 am to 11 am [after which] the police shoo us away. But these days, barely 20 get work in a day,” casual worker Mohammad Shahid told The Indian Express. Wages too have fallen from Rs 400-Rs 500 to Rs 100-Rs 150. The second wave was still raging. “Earlier, we got jobs as labourers at construction sites,” said Shahid. “Now, rich people come in their cars and take us to lift the bodies of their family members. They are too scared to touch the bodies because of Corona. But we have families to feed.”
But there is one word, Ghose reports from Aligarh, that that generates more fear than Covid-19. This is “lockdown”.
“Please, do not get another lockdown imposed,” Narayan Das, a vegetable vendor begged him. “We can fight Covid, but not starvation.” Das called out to customers loudly, his mask around his chin. He was not unaware of the risks that he was taking. On the contrary, he was terrified that he could die with Covid-19.
“But I have a wife and children at home,” he said. “I have to work for them, and I fear a lockdown will destroy us. They say wear masks. Do they know how difficult it is to shout for our customers with a mask? That we stand in the heat for six hours in the day when it is 40 degrees Celsius?”
Workers in eateries around the country also suffered immense job losses during the two waves of Covid-19 and multiple lockdowns. Rajkumar was still a student in Class 10 when he began working in an eatery. He shifted out from his home town Madurantakam to Chennai in 2003. There over time, he saved money to open Hotel Aryabhavan at the Perungalathur bus stand, and then another, Ganapathy Mess.
He had since then survived many storms and setbacks, and the eateries flourished through all his changes of fortune. But now he was forced to close both eateries. To repay a bank loan of Rs 10 lakh, he sold his car and family jewellery. He is frightened when he thinks about his future. “I do not know any other source of livelihood,” he told The Wire. “The hotel business had been my way of life. I have never felt this helpless.”
M Venkadasubbu, president of the Tamil Nadu Hotels and Restaurants Association, estimated that around 2,000 hotels had shut down forever, many others were on the brink of closure and at least 50,000 workers had been left jobless.
Nalini Ravichandran from The Wire reports on what she described as “a tsunami of permanent closure of restaurants and hotels in Tamil Nadu”, unsupported by the government. These sank “under the burden of mortgage payments, dwindling footfalls, mounting restrictions and anticipation of a third wave”.
We found the prospects for food and work were no better in Delhi’s slums. Majnu ka Tilla is a slum where we had distributed ration kits during the first lockdown. Returning there a year later, we asked slum residents if life was better. “Things have not improved from last year”, was the recurring disconsolate answer.
There is no work, no water, no help. Many of them used to earn their living by selling their wares from house to house, but now the police often beat them back with their batons. The vendors earned sometimes one, sometimes two hundred rupees a day. Sometimes not even that.
When they take their wares into residential colonies, some residents ask – show us your Aadhar card. How do we know that you are not from Pakistan? (That probably is a thin code for being Muslim). Many were therefore lining up to get their Aadhar cards made. But officials, they said, were often rude to them. And they had no papers to prove who they were, that they belonged.
A few people, they reported, came in the lockdowns and gave them ration kits. “They would say this was enough to last us 10 days. We would try to stretch this to 12, even 15 days. But what after that? And we needed more than just rations. Water, cooking gas, medical help. How do we get this?” They were ashamed that for the first time, they have been reduced to sending their children to eat their meals and the gurudwaras.
Rise in inequality
Antony, 42, from Goa, who after the first wave of the pandemic, invested most of his life savings of Rs 4 lakh in his “dream venture, Shree Bar and Restaurant” in Old Goa in March 2021.
“Who thought that a second wave of Covid-19 would hit India?” he grieved. “Even the government did not warn us.”
His new business collapsed, he was unable to repay his debts and to pay for his three children’s education. “I have never seen such bad times in my life,” he told Bloomberg Quint.
Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s worst public health crisis in a hundred years triggered an economic crisis comparable in scale only with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Informal workers worst hit. Of a total 12.2 crore who lost their jobs, 75%, which accounts for 9.2 crore jobs, were lost in the informal sector.
But India found itself, even as the second wave was abating, in an ironic (and morally appalling) situation in which, in the words of Andy Mukherjee for Bloomberg, “brisk sales of luxury cars and soaring net worth for billionaires” co-existed with “widespread joblessness and depleted savings” in which “[p]oor households ate less last year, and economists [we]re warning of another wave of intense food deprivation”.
At a time when India’s annual per capita income was at below $2,000, falling behind even Bangladesh, Mercedes-Benz AG introduced its Maybach sport utility vehicle costing $400,000 in India. This was right in the middle of the second wave. Its target was to sell 50 cars by the end of 2021. But 50 cars were sold in just one month of the opening.
The wealth of India’s billionaires rose by 35% during the pandemic, according to an Oxfam report on what it called the “inequality virus”. Leading them was a man who for many years was India’s richest, Mukesh Ambani, whose wealth rose by 72% to Rs 5.8 lakh crore, making him the richest man in Asia. He added Rs 90 crore to his wealth every hour of the pandemic.
It would take an unskilled worker 10,000 years to earn as much as Ambani made in an hour. It would take her three years to earn what Ambani made in a second. The rise in his wealth during the pandemic would have been enough to keep 40 crore workers out of poverty for five months.
But even he was overtaken during the pandemic period by India’s second richest man. The wealth of Gautam Adani, Gujarati businessman noted for his close links with Prime Minister Modi swelled in this period ten-fold, to a whopping $88.6 billion on February 8. He raced past even Mukesh Ambani (with a net worth of $87.9 billion) to become the richest person in Asia.
They were not alone in their soaring fortunes. Amidst the deluge of hunger and joblessness, billionaires like Radhakishan Damani thought it fit to buy a $137 million mansion in Mumbai in April, making this “the priciest-ever property transaction in the country”.
The Oxfam report records that other Indian billionaires such as Shiv Nadar, Cyrus Poonawalla, Uday Kotak, Azim Premji, Sunil Mittal, Radhakrishan Damani, Kumar Manglam Birla and Laxmi Mittal – working in sectors like coal, oil, telecom, medicines, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, education and retail – were also able to increase their wealth “exponentially” after March 2020.
The wealth of India’s 100 billionaires soared by Rs 12,97,822 crores after March 2020, enough to give every one of the 138 million poorest Indian people a cheque for Rs 94,045 each. The swelling of wealth of the top 11 billionaires of India during the pandemic could sustain the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for 10 years or the health ministry for 10 years.
Mahesh Vyas of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that by the end of the second wave, most sections of the Indian economy were grievously hit. “More than 97% of India’s population became poorer compared to where they were in terms of income,” he said while accounting for inflation. He added: This “raises the question, how are we going to recover from this situation?”
During the financial year 2020-’21, GDP in India contracted by 7.3%, the most severe contraction since independence. The economy was already slowing down when the pandemic hit. But it contracted so drastically after the unprecedented overnight closure of the economy, choking both production and consumption to new lows.
During the year 2021-’21, the Reserve Bank of India with cautious optimism initially anticipated growth of 10.5% (building on the very low base of 2020-’21). But after the second wave, global expectations began to slide. Moody’s projections fell to 9.3%. The S&P Global Rating projections fell to as low as 8.2%.
The Centre for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy further reported that middle-class incomes were the most badly hit of any class due to the first wave. A Pew Research Centre analysis of March 2021 estimated that the Indian middle class had shrunk by 3.2 crore people in 2020. Pew reported that there was a global decline in the middle class during the pandemic, but that India contributed the largest share to this fall – about 60%.
But many economists do not fully agree with this conclusion, partly because there use diverse definitions of what constitutes the middle class in India. “There is a [small and] secure middle class who are in the formal sector and there is a [large] precarious middle class with no fixed jobs and income: traders, small businessmen, people who are paid reasonable wages because of the skills they possess – for instance, an X-Ray diagnostician,” Anirudh Krishna, professor of public policy and political science at Duke University, US, explained to IndiaSpend, “So this [slowdown] in growth of the precarious middle class – going together with the slowing down of the economy – put a plateau on top of middle class growth.”
Himanshu, associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi agrees that “[w]e do not have a definition of middle class”, but he underlines that “we do have a definition of the poor and anybody above that threshold is classified as non-poor. Certainly the class that we call consumers – the class which has a large amount of discretionary spending – has been hit the most. Jobs have been lost and wages have been reduced, so spending has been hit for most of these people”.
Another indicator of the falling fortunes of middle-class people is the fall in savings and rise in debts as a share of GDP. This was confirmed by a Reserve Bank of India study, which found that the ratio of household bank deposits to gross domestic product declined from 7.7% in the second quarter of 2020-’21 (July 2020-September 2020) to 3% by the third quarter (October 2020-December 2020).
Simultaneously, the household debt-to-GDP “rose sharply” from 37.1% on September 30, 2020 to 37.9% by December 31, 2020. As senior journalist Shoaib Daniyal explains, “savings are critical not only for individual households but also the economy as a whole since they provide capital for investment”. And unlike industrialised countries such as the United States, but similar to other emerging economies Brazil and South Africa, India has traditionally enjoyed a high rate of savings.
What is more, much of India’s savings come from household savings. In 2017, total savings made up 30% of the GDP, and out of this 17.2% was due to households.
“The government’s actions both in controlling expenses during a crisis and imposing austerity measures remains inexplicable,” according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy analysis. I entirely agree. As Himanshu explains, government support mainly targeted the rich and upper-middle-class Indians, but this did little to boost domestic demand.
“They will not spend most of what they earn [because] a large part of it goes into idle money, which is conspicuous consumption,” he said. “The money would be used to buy an iPhone, which would have no effect on your domestic economy. Poor and [lower middle-class Indians] are more likely to spend on goods that are manufactured in the country.”
“The money RBI put in the economy… rather than going to the real economy and the productive sectors in the form of credit, has found itself in the stock markets. As a result, both the S&P BSE Sensex, an index of 30 large companies, and NSE Nifty-50, an index of the 50 largest companies listed on the National Stock Exchange, have surged by about 86% and 91%, respectively, between April 2020 and July 2021. But GDP growth, a barometer for the health of the economy, contracted by a record 7.3% in 2020.”
The Reserve Bank itself expressed concern that there is a disconnect between the real economy and financial markets. When the pandemic lockdowns tore into household incomes and savings, the listed financial companies made record profits in the March 2021 quarter, according to a Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy analysis.
Rural India affected
Sudhir Paswan was one among Over 8,00,000 migrants who returned to his village from India’s capital city after the second wave. He had earned in normal times between Rs 200 and Rs 700 a day as a loader of goods in Delhi’s Okhla Industrial Area. “Since the lockdown, there was no work and access to food and essentials became difficult,” he told the Hindustan Times. “I had to leave the city.”
Jobs had become even harder to access after the lockdowns of 2021 because the economy had not had a chance to recover after the rampaging first wave. He had no money or savings. He borrowed money to travel back to his village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district with his wife and sick son who he had been treating at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. But the village was a dead-end for employment. That is why he had been forced to leave it in the first place.
The predicament of single mother Rabiya in Gurugram was even more dire. Before the lockdown, she had earned Rs 7,000 a month in a factory for manufacturing motorcycle parts. But work ground to a halt w with the April 2021 lockdown. How would she feed her two children? “I have no family support and need rations to feed my children,” she told IndiaSpend. “It is becoming difficult to get by,” she said. But she had left her ration card in her village in Uttar Pradesh.
All migrant workers who IndiaSpend spoke to had left their ration cards with their families in their villages or towns. “I left the card with my parents who stay in the village,” said Gobardhan Adivasi, a mason from Tikamgrah in Madhya Pradesh, who works in Faridabad.
“I am trying to get work, but there are no jobs,” said Rakesh, another young migrant from Bihar. Before the second wave, he was employed as a construction worker in Delhi, earning Rs 350 a day. “I did not go back during the national lockdown last year because I had some savings. This time when I want to go back home, I do not have any money to buy train tickets.”
Both Rabiya of Gururgram and Rakesh of Delhi reported eating less, indeed a bare minimum. “These days, we eat aloo bhujiya or some potato dish or the other. We used to give our infant Cerelac (tinned infant food), but we now just about manage to give him some milk,” Rakesh said.
Amit Kumar points to one important difference between the first and second waves, and this was that the second wave, unlike the first, overwhelmed also the countryside. Unlike the first wave, when manufacturing and the urban economy came to a grinding halt, the rural economy was much less impacted by the closures and infections.
The rural economy continued to move because of less strict lockdowns, and also because of a good monsoon. Therefore the agricultural economy actually grew by 3.4% even as the economy as a whole contracted by 7.7%. But during the second wave, rural areas began reporting more cases than urban ones (even though under-reporting of cases was probably much higher in villages because of low testing facilities).
In over 50 most severely hit districts, 26 were rural. The shock was aggravated further by the broken healthcare infrastructure of the countryside and the closure of agricultural mandis during the peak of harvesting leading to crops rotting in the fields.
This might illuminate in part a seemingly paradoxical finding of a survey by Aajeevika Bureau, a labour support collective, that unlike in 2020 when migrants in millions left cities for their villages, during the second wave it found reverse migration in Ahmedabad, in April 2021.
Many young workers including those between 14-17 years from the tribal pockets of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, were migrating to the city even as the wave peaked. They explained that their schooling was broken and there was barely enough to eat; they were forced therefore to travel to cities looking for work.
Manufacturing was hit badly in both waves, first because migrants returned to their villages, and second because global and local supply chains were disrupted and remained so in the second wave. The IHS Markit India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index in May 2021 slumped to 50.8 from 57.5 reported in February 2021. The services sector was least damaged.
A rapid survey of migrant workers in Ahmedabad during the second wave revealed that the new crisis had stricken the workers at a time when many had not yet recovered from the last year’s economic shocks. Their savings were already depleted and their debts burgeoned. The Stranded Workers Action Network, a migrant resource group, in May 2021 found that 58% of migrant families were just days from going hungry.
The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reported that “of the total 2.25 crore jobs lost in April-May , 1.72 crore were of daily wage earners”. Daily wagers who gathered at labour chowks awaiting potential employers, would say, “Aaj kaam nahi mila, kal mera chulha nahi jala [Today I did not find work, tomorrow my hearth will not be lit].”
Factories and stitching units were permitted during the second wave lockdowns to only operate at half capacity until June 7, 2021. Night curfews also disrupted night shifts. Textile workers reported that some did not have work for a full month.
Aajevika found that garment units, small and medium-sized establishments employing 10-50 workers, which depended heavily on orders from larger factories, had completely shut down, because new orders had dried up. Workers in these units reported during the second wave a 47% drop in weekly wages.
Probably the most severely hit were home-based women workers. In normal times, they did (at dirt wages) outsourced value addition work such as thread-cutting and collar and button sewing. But they had no substantial orders since the 2020 lockdown. Hotel and restaurant workers were either retrenched or reported a 20% decline in weekly wages during the second wave.
Cumulatively, employment fell between January 2021 to May 2021 from 40.07 crore to 37.55 crore, a sharp tumble of 2.53 crore. But just the two months of April and May 2021 account for 2.27 crore of the 2.53 crore job losses. This was the result of substantial disruption in economic activities due to multiple lockdowns at this time.
The second wave decimated jobs even harder than demonetisation: the May 2021 fall in employment was higher even than the 1.23 crore fall recorded in November 2016, the month of demonetisation.
It is important also to reiterate that this job loss hit daily wagers most severely. Of the 2.23 crore people who lost jobs lost during April-May, 1.72 crore were daily wage earners, as compared with 57 lakh business workers, and 32 lakh salaried employees.
The high burdens of job loss for casual workers were the inevitable result of their high vulnerability due to the enormous informality of their conditions of work, and that they were bereft of any social security and job protections. The sectors worst hit by job losses were the real estate and construction industries: from 6.4 crore jobs in March 2021, employment fell during April-May 2021 by 88 lakh.
It is significant that most employment in this sector is informal, making retrenchment easy. Job losses in manufacturing industries was 42 lakh out of 3 crore. Vyas estimates that most of these were in medium and small-scale industries.
Hotels and tourism also reeled with 40 lakh jobs lost from 2.25 crore. Wholesale and retail trade saw bobs fall by 36 lakh from 5.8 crore. Vyas underlines that these industries are also employers of large numbers of informally engaged labour.
Vyas also found that the age group of 15-29 years did not see any job losses during April-May 2021. The highest job losses (1.87 crore jobs) were among those above 40 years of age, and next the age group of 30-39 years saw a net loss of 59 lakh jobs. Most job losses were of middle-aged men, who were often the main bread-earners for the family. This also means the severest impact on the economy.
The effect overall on the informal sector, which had barely recovered from the effect of the first lockdown in 2020, was debilitating. The Centre for Sustainable Employment underlines that the impact of the second wave was more serious because people had not yet recovered from the first wave.
A year into the pandemic, 23 crore Indians slipped below the national minimum wage threshold, according to a report by Azim Premji University. A study by the State Bank of India reported that the share of the informal economy fell to 20% of GDP in 2020-’21 from around 50% two years earlier.
In other words, the informal economy suddenly accounted for a mere one-fifth of GDP, down from in 2017-’18, accounting for 52% of GDP, employing 82% of the total workforce.
Nagaraj of the Centre for Development Studies and Kapoor of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations point out greater formalisation of the economy is often considered a good thing and touted as an accomplishment by the union government led by PM Narendra Modi.
One-fifth of informality is a figure comparable to many advanced economies. But this is a good thing only if micro and small informal firms transitioned to formality, which would ensure improved job security and work conditions for the workers formerly in informal employment. However, what actually happened was very different.
The informal sector’s share in GDP did not see also a parallel reduction in its employment share. Informal employment actually rose in this period. The reality was that formal sector firms rationalised their workforce, and these retrenched workers found low-end employment in the informal sector.
The Azim Premji University Report traced that “nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work” and “monthly earnings of workers fell on an average by 17% during the pandemic”. This meant that the lockdown actually increased the precarity and informal forms of employment.
Coming on a low-income base, this shock meant that the number of individuals who fall below the national minimum wage threshold (I,375 per day as recommended by the Anoop Satpathy committee) increased by 23 crore during the pandemic. This amounted to an increase in the poverty rate by 15 percentage points in rural and nearly 20 percentage points in urban areas.
Nagaraj and Kapoor find this “unsurprising” because the informal sector lacked the financial strength and the technical wherewithal to withstand the Covid shock and policy support was mostly supply-side measures mainly directed to assist firms in the formal sector, while the informal sector was “left to fend for itself”.
This meant that the severe jolts of lockdowns pushed much of India’s workforce into low productivity and low-paying work. This in turn hit adversely consumer demand, which means a longer-term hit to investment and economic growth.
Therefore, the formalisation was actually the result of extreme duress on the informal sector, as the working poor struggled to survive. To celebrate this formalisation “based on the misery and devastation of poor informal workers [and their meagre productive assets] is not just misplaced but also callous”.
Vulnerable and homeless
My colleagues and I have worked for nearly two decades in Yamuna Pushta, a settlement of around 4,000 homeless single men in North Delhi, along the banks of the near-terminally contaminated Yamuna River, adjacent to the largest cremation grounds of the city Nigambodh Ghat. There we met Laxman, in his 30s from Nepal, who spoke of his ghastly misadventures after the lockdown eased in 2020.
He was desperate for any employment when the first lockdown was lifted and therefore agreed to go to work in the mountain snows of Himachal. His employers transported him, and half a dozen other workers, to a place so high that it became hard to breathe.
He laboured there for some 90 days, but they gave none of the men any wages. Finally, in helpless desperation, he ran away with the other workers. “We did not have even a rupee between us,” he said. “We trekked along the mountain roads. Sometimes people gave us a lift”.
When they reached Manali, he looked for work for a few days at the labour chowk there. With just a little money in his pocket, he returned, walking and hitch-hiking, to Yamuna Pushta, the only home he knew of single homeless men in Delhi.
Another homeless man from Assam said he had left home 15 years earlier. First in Guwahati, then in Delhi, he found intermittent employment, cooking and serving at wedding parties or picking and sorting waste. During the 2020 lockdown, he fell very sick – he said he said he was racked by a severe pain in his abdomen.
Fortunately, the nuns in the Mother Teresa Ashram took him in, tended him back to health, and employed him for six months in their kitchen, until he was fit enough for to be discharged back to the rigours of homeless life. He came back to Yamuna Pushta, and began work, struggling mainly with waste collection.
He looked mainly for plastic bottles, glass alcohol bottles and cardboard boxes to sell for recycling. This is work he had done for years, but now the market paid much less. And then the Covid second wave hit, and pushed them all even further into hunger and joblessness.
A Sikh patriarch, who insists that he must remain anonymous, has been supplying a few thousand meals every day for homeless people for the last 15 years, even during the lockdowns. It is he, most of all, who helped them live through the darkest times. He supplied one hot meal every day, the Karwan e Mohabbat volunteers supply the second.
Another Assamese homeless man also joined our conversation. His parents had both died when his sister and he were children. His mother’s brother had raised them, and married off his sister. But his uncle was also poor, and he did not want to burden him anymore, so he left for Delhi. That was 15 years ago. He thought he would make a life for himself, save some money, and then return to his uncle, this time as a provider. But nothing ever worked out for him, he had no savings. What little he had, the lockdowns had wiped out. “Main kis mooh se wapas jaoon? [With what face could I return?]” he asked us.
I asked them if the Covid-19 virus had caught up with them and their homeless brothers. They were emphatic that they had barely been touched by the deadly virus. Oopar wallah – the one above – had saved them.
I had heard this reply often from homeless people but was sceptical. After jumping through many hoops, when we had begun testing and treatment camps for homeless people across Delhi, and in three other cities, from the autumn of 2020, we were unable to identify many Covid positive people among the homeless. (It was in the course of this service that our doctor for the homeless in Delhi, Pradip Bijalwan, lost his life).
I was still sceptical, convinced that we were somehow missing homeless people who surely must have been the worst hit by Covid-19. I, therefore, checked with comrades working with homeless people in many parts of the world.
They all said that this was the experience worldwide. That homeless people were susceptible to almost every other malady, especially tuberculosis that killed so many of them; but the Covid virus seemed to have let them be. Science still has to explain this fully, but my homeless doctor friends believe that they were saved by their “radical outdoor living”.
Shelters were hot-houses for the super-spread of the virus. But their hard life sleeping rough in the open air saved them from the virus. It is another matter that joblessness and mass hunger took the greatest toll instead of homeless people.
Read the other parts of the “Tsunami of suffering” series here.
Harsh Mander is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow, Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies and convenes the Karwan e Mohabbat, a people’s campaign to fight hate crime with solidarity and atonement.