Part of the reason we are living through the worst pandemic in a century is that for months, governments across the world responded to Covid-19 with denial: denial that the disease was serious, that it was a threat to their countries, that quarantines were required, and finally that quarantines would likely go on for many months.

Now, with the United Kingdom declaring that normal life will not resume for at least six months and even the Trump administration in the United States extending social distancing guidelines until April 30, it is increasingly clear that India’s 21-day lockdown is just the start. Covid-19 won’t be going anywhere soon.

This is horrifying news, because India’s initial 21-day lockdown has already triggered a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions: thousands of migrants walking hundreds of kilometres in the scorching heat, the poor dying of starvation while shameful amounts of food go to waste, the police using curfew to launch a reign of terror against the people, all while the virus spreads unchecked amidst society’s most vulnerable. A longer lockdown means this will only get much, much worse.

Beyond relief

Experts who understand the way forward have clearly outlined the solution: relief. The Center’s current package is nowhere close to enough; it needs to immediately be expanded. Grain, incomes and pensions, water, electricity, and healthcare all must be rushed to the poor with the utmost efficiency.

But relief, while absolutely essential to help the poor survive the crisis, is still the wrong way to view the problem for two reasons: first, because relief can ameliorate the crisis but cannot end it. Second, because talk of relief still positions the poor as “the needy,” as if they were a burdens on the state. The truth is actually the opposite: without the laboring poor, India has no way out of this crisis.

Migrant workers wait for food in Chennai. Credit: AFP

For the past three decades, observers have celebrated the explosion of consumer goods and commercial activity in India, but in a real crisis few of those goods and services are of any use. Even before Covid-19 India accounted for a quarter of the world’s child deaths, showing that markets maximise the production of what is profitable, not what is socially necessary (luxury condominiums, not public hospitals).

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments are combating the fundamental social inefficiency of present-day production by shutting down useless but profitable activity like debt collection while designating undervalued workers like grocery-store employees and garbage collectors as
essential public servants deserving personal protection equipment, free childcare and hazard pay.

Identifying and protecting essential workers is especially crucial in India. We know from South Korea’s experience that universalising free testing, treatment, and monitoring is essential to keeping Covid-19 at bay. But in India, we have almost none of the provisions we need to do these things. Regions across the country face acute shortages of tests, hospital beds, ventilators, masks and gloves, doctors, nurses, sanitary quarantines, cleaning products, transportation, and almost other every good or service necessary to come out of this crisis.

Total social mobilisation

In response to these shortages, what we need is not a curfew driven by blind panic but rather a total social mobilisation of the kind that happened in Western countries during World War II, when car factories produced tanks, citizens donated scrap metal to the war effort, and society as a whole came to despise individual profiteering at a time of collective crisis.

This is the economic system India urgently needs now. Instead of a total lockdown, the government could have stopped all gatherings and businesses while absorbing all relevant enterprises and all essential workers (with personal protection equipment, hazard pay, and benefits) into a nationwide public health and disaster mitigation effort. Garment manufacturers could then be requisitioned to supervise the production of masks and gloves, empty buildings and construction sites overtaken to build hospital wards, factories drafted to make ventilators and oxygen tanks, delivery and taxi companies directed to transport essentials.

Instead of fewer trains and buses, more public transport could be run so essential workers could travel without crowding. Soap and water could be provided at all public places alongside a well-paid and protected cleaning staff made up of both government sanitation employees and laid-off informal cleaners. All these essential urban workers could be housed and fed in vacant lodgings and provided care at quality hospitals – all paid on the government’s rupee as compensation for rendering services of national importance.

Under such a scheme, there would be no mass exodus from cities, and by keeping interstate transportation frequent and sanitary, the dangers of small-scale reverse migration could be contained.

Workers outside their shuttered powerloom in Bhiwadni, on the outskirts of Mumbai. Credit: Reuters

Meanwhile, rural areas could be prepared for the outbreak by similarly providing workers with PPEs and fair compensation to carry out crucial work. National Rural Employment Guarantee Act labourers could be mobilised to turn buildings into hospitals, quarantine units, or isolation wards as a way of preparing for Covid-19 but also of reversing decades of cuts to rural health budgets.

School teachers, anganwadi workers, and cultural laborers could be trained to teach local populations about social distancing and to help with child and elder care. Existing educational and skills-training programmes could teach necessary medical skills like administering tests, supervising quarantines, and so forth.

All this would supplement, not replace, relief measures like provisions of grain that are necessary to reward the quiet but very socially essential work of staying home.

Putting workers before profits

If this is such a good solution, why wasn’t it implemented? For two reasons: first, because Indian elites’ disdain for the laboring poor is so deep-seated that it makes it impossible to admit that the poor might ever be essential. The government already balks at the idea of giving the poor “relief”. How much more would it resist if asked to provide the poor with PPE, housing, food, extra pay, grain and most of all, recognition and gratitude?

Second, this call to set up a socially beneficial economic system will invariably run into the excuse of “it is too expensive.” But this excuse is absurd. Money ultimately measures how much labor one is able to command. India has an overabundance of very willing laborers, which means we can produce or acquire everything we need to weather this crisis while keeping all our people healthy.

Poorer countries than India have decided they would like this outcome, which is why they are freezing payments for essentials while using nationalised hospitals and supply chains to produce for the public good.

We too can do all this, and more: urgently reorganize production around use value rather than exchange value, excise the profit motive from the production of essentials, and most importantly, commit to paying, protecting, and valuing workers rather than brutalizing and demeaning them. If we don’t find the courage to choose people over profits, the alternative is going to be too gruesome to fathom.

Aparna Gopalan is PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. Her research and writing focuses on the reproduction of inequality and poverty in rural India.