Raju Kamble has not heard the phrase “social distancing”, but he is aware of the government and media advisories urging people to work from home, avoid crowds and maintain a safe distance from others to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Ask him if he practices any of it, and Kamble merely laughs.

“I am a safai karmachari, my job is to pick up other people’s garbage,” said Kamble, a sanitation worker in suburban Mumbai. “How can people like us work from home?”

With another sardonic laugh, he brings up the caste identity shared by thousands of garbage collectors, sweepers and sewage cleaners across the city. “All of us in this line of work are Dalit, so people have always kept their distance from us,” he declared.

At a time when a large section of urban India is isolating itself to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, another large section of the country – the blue-collared working class – perceives the idea of social distancing as a luxury it cannot afford.

For labourers like Kamble who provide essential services to the public, working from home or avoiding crowded public transport is not an option. For daily wage earners and those in the unorganised sector, staying off work could mean having no food on the table for several days.

How, then, do these masses of marginalised Indians negotiate the fear and panic surrounding coronavirus? Is it fair or practical to expect them to implement social distancing?

‘Can’t afford to fall sick’

Covid-19, as the disease caused by the coronavirus is officially called, has infected more than 1.7 lakh people worldwide, killing more than 6,600. In India, the disease has so far caused two deaths and infected at least 114 people across 14 states. While these are the official figures, many fear that the number of infected people on the ground may be much higher, because of concerns that India is not testing enough people for coronavirus.

Across the world, healthcare experts agree that the only way to control the rapidly spreading disease and avoid overburdening national healthcare systems is to practice social distancing and limit human-to-human interactions. In the past week, several states across India put this into action by closing down schools, colleges, malls and movie theatres and, in the case of Karnataka, even banning social events involving more than 50 people. In the private sector, many workplaces are either asking or allowing employees to work from home.

For unorganised workers like Manda Ghonge, however, work has been going on as usual. A domestic worker from Andheri, Mumbai, Ghonge cooks and cleans in four middle-class homes, seven days a week. “My employers have told me not to come to work if I fall sick, but I don’t know if I will be able to stop going to work if any of them fall sick,” said Ghonge, 40, who lives with her husband and two children in a cramped local slum.

While Ghonge’s employers have assured her that pay would not be cut if she needs to take sick leave, other domestic workers are not as fortunate. Kalpana Kale, a domestic worker from the same neighbourhood, has learnt from past experience that some employers always cut her salary for any leave lasting longer than a week.

“Most of the people I work for are not going to office anymore because of coronavirus, so I joke with them and tell them that even I should be able to do the same thing,” said Kale, who has been annoyed that her employers merely laugh at her “joke” without acknowledging the point she tries to make. “I know they really need me, but I also know that they don’t pay me when I am gone for long, so I can’t afford to fall sick.”

Manda Ghonge is a domestic worker in Mumbai. Photo: Aarefa Johari

‘They don’t care about our health’

Unlike domestic workers, other unorganised workers have been losing income even after showing up to work every day.

Auto driver Rajesh Kumar, for instance, has been plying fewer and fewer passengers every day for the past week, with his daily income dropping from Rs 800 to Rs 300 within days. “I have to keep working to support my family, and when passengers cough or sneeze in my auto, there is very little I can do about it,” said Kumar, who has been driving an auto in suburban Mumbai for the past 25 years.

Kumar lives alone in a slum room and claims he has taken no precautions against coronavirus, because he believes it is a “rumour” that has been needlessly robbing him of his daily income. “If something bad has to happen, it will happen no matter what we do. I think people are just over-reacting to news in the media.”

While Kamble, the sanitation worker, believes the coronavirus threat is real, he too is baffled by the “overreaction” of those in positions of privilege. “What is the big deal about this disease? Safai karmacharis suffer from cough, cold, viral fever and breathing problems all the time,” said Kamble, whose services are particularly crucial to the city at a time like this, when public hygiene is so important.

Kamble finds it ironic that Mumbai’s civic authorities and private contractors who hire sanitation workers are now providing many of them with face masks and gloves – protective gear that workers have been demanding for years as their right. “The government cares about providing us with masks and gloves only now, because of the media attention on the virus,” he said. “They don’t care about our health otherwise.”

A class and caste bias

Several public healthcare professionals acknowledge that there is an unmistakable class and caste bias to India’s response to the coronavirus threat, particularly with respect to social distancing. Economically and socially disadvantaged groups, whether urban or rural, have never been in a position to practice social isolation or distancing, even before the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Doctors talk about social distancing as part of routine clinical care, for tuberculosis, influenza and other communicable diseases,” said Dr Vijay Gopichandran, a community medicine physician from Chennai. “But it has not been given as much attention before because it is not practical for the poor and marginalised, who navigate their lives by working and living close to other people.”

In a recent article co-authored with other community medicine specialists, Gopichandran highlighted problems faced by cattle-grazers in Tamil Nadu who had no option but to live in close quarters with flu-infected relatives, and who were too impoverished to even think of skipping work during an illness. “Most public health advisories that have been released in the past few weeks are highly urban, upper- and middle-class centric,” the article said.

According to Gopichandran, the concept of social distancing is not just impractical but also discriminatory if it is not accompanied by reciprocal welfare measures. “If people are expected to work from home, then perhaps the NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme] should give everyone minimum wages to survive during that time,” he said. “Perhaps rations should be delivered to families at their homes.”