That people may be thinking about more than just the stock market, recession, and consumption in the wake of the pandemic and the shuttering of the economy should be obvious. Among the working class, whether employed in low-paying if steady jobs or, as is quite common in South Asia, Africa, Mexico, and South America, as daily wage-labourers, or slogging it out in the so-called gig economy, there are more pressing economic concerns and the fear is palpable. Initially, in many countries, it was uncertain who would pay for 14 days of quarantine.
Social distancing and the practice of quarantine is undoubtedly an unadulterated good from the standpoint of public health officials interested primarily in seeking to halt the transmission of the virus, but how does it help to put food on the table? The state may have assumed much of the responsibility of quarantine, but how far people will have gone into debt when they needed medical care will become clear over time. It is palpably clear that the poor, as described elsewhere in this book, are disproportionately affected by the disease, and many have been turned away from hospitals.
The cloud of economic insecurity has always hung over the poor, and it has, with the spread of Covid-19, only got darker and larger.
Most countries have adopted some relief measures, but countries with some notion of the collective good or, as in the case of the UK, with some demonstrable commitment to social welfare even as the self-employed and ethnic minorities remain vulnerable, have been more thoughtful about how they have attempted to minimise the corrosive social and economic aspects of the crisis.
Britain’s conservative government showed perhaps more sensitivity than one might have expected in requiring employers to keep non-essential workers at home at up to 80 per cent of their wages and capping payments to them at £2,500 a month.
“We are starting a great national effort to protect jobs,” noted Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, in introducing the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, adding: “We want to look back on this time and remember how in the face of a generation- defining moment we undertook a collective national effort and we stood together.”
Most EU countries, as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have offered similar wage subsidies keeping non-essential employees at home for 65 per cent or more – as much as 90 per cent in Denmark – of their salary.
In consequence of these policies, EU countries were able to hold the jobless rate down to 6.5 per cent in May, and to 7.4 per cent in July. In India, by contrast, it went up from 8.7 per cent in mid-March to 23.5 per cent in May, though some studies claim that it is as high as 27 per cent.
Prime Minister Modi announced on May 12 a relief package, dubbed as part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (Making India Self-Reliant Mission) of Rs 20 lakh crore, which can be rounded out to about $300 billion, constituting about 10 per cent of the country’s GDP.
This may sound reasonably generous for one of the poorest countries in the world, comparable as a percentage of the country’s GDP to the initial $2 trillion “stimulus” approved by the US Congress, but the actual fiscal cost of the supposed “relief package” is only 1 per cent of India’s GDP. Some of the relief measures had been taken before the announced package, many of the proposals are credit-focused, and as much as Rs 8.04 lakh crore, or about 40 per cent of the proposed package, is merely additional liquidity that had been injected into the system by the Reserve Bank of India in the preceding three months.
The government may claim that fiscal prudence is requisite in order for India to maintain sovereign credit ratings at a level that would still bring in foreign investment inflows, but the pressing requirement of the moment is cash transfers to the poorest and ensuring that food reaches all those who are hungry. But the government acts on the presumption that continued capitulation to neoliberal policies and striving to make India attractive to foreign investors outweigh the moral social pact that the state must make with its own people.
As is quite obvious, the implications of the suspension of months of economic activity are staggering and in some countries the situation, dire as it is, will continue to deteriorate.
The WHO has warned repeatedly of the risks of mass food insecurity and famine in as many as 30 countries worldwide and reportedly by mid-April there were already a million people at the brink of starvation in as many as 10 countries.
The fifth edition of the monitoring report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), dated 30 June 2020, begins with the grim observation that “the vast majority, namely 93 per cent, of the world’s workers continue to reside in countries with some sort of workplace closure measure in place”. The report is strikingly sensitive to the fact that the pandemic may set back efforts that have been years in the making in achieving gender parity, though the report does not elaborate upon the several dimensions to this very question.
Women occupy a greater portion of lower-paid jobs than men and have less job security than men; more of them live in poverty, especially as single parents with children than do men, and this alone makes them more vulnerable. They constitute an overwhelming majority of healthcare workers, aside from physicians, and though the virus is far more lethal to men than it is to women, it is telling that a much higher number of female than male healthcare workers have been infected during the pandemic.
In early April, 72 per cent of the infected healthcare workers in Spain were women; in Italy, that number was 66 per cent. They predominate industries and services, which shut down entirely during the pandemic, such as hospitality, hotels, and tourism, and not surprisingly over 55 per cent of the jobs lost in the US in April were held by women.
In nearly every country of the world, women do more housework than men, even when they hold a salaried job, and childcare remains their responsibility. With schools shuttered and children at home, women’s responsibilities have grown; some have had to relinquish their jobs, both to take care of children at home and elderly parents. In the words of one assessment of the gendering of the economic fallout of the pandemic in the US, it could “scar a generation of working mothers”.
There can be little doubt that women in India will be even more adversely affected than women in the US, western Europe, or East Asia.
Their situation is more precarious for a variety of reasons. India has one of the lowest participation rates of women in the labour market, and moreover this rate has declined over the last 15 years even as it has grown in many other countries. Less than 21 per cent of Indian women participated in the labour market in 2019.
As women become more educated, they are more likely to join the labour force; at the same time, in many communities, as incomes have risen and men have joined the ranks of the “middle class”, the women in these families have withdrawn from the labour force. In these households, the fact that a woman doesn’t have to work is seen as a sign of upward mobility or affluence, though a more complete analysis of this cultural trait – visible among very well-to-do women married to extremely affluent men in the US – is beyond the scope of the present work and not entirely germane either.
Economic precarity also suggests that more women will be forced into marriages that are not of their choosing – this is already an indubitable fact of Indian social structures, and Indian online matrimonial sites reported a surge of 30 per cent in late April over the previous month. One can speculate that this is not merely because people looking for marriage partners cannot meet in person during the lockdown but also because more parents will be pushing their young unmarried daughters into marriage – both to relieve their own economic distress and to secure, as they think, a home for their daughter in an uncertain future.
If there is no emancipation or equality of women without economic freedom, where at least a woman herself desires such autonomy, then clearly the prospects for such a possibility stand eroded in the wake of the pandemic and the calamitous wounds inflicted on the economy. Two journalists may thus not be exaggerating in having written recently that the “coronavirus economy” may be a “devastating setback” for Indian women.
Excerpted with permission from The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus, Vinay Lal, Macmillan.