Social Distancing and COVID-19 Pandemic in India- A learning for India

Social distancing is a proven way of handling a pandemic, especially when the disease is transmissible from one carrier to the other. The first case of coronavirus pandemic 2019-2020 was reported in India on January 30, 2020.  In these two months’ time, India has reported over 4,000 coronavirus cases along with approximately 100 deaths. Though this number appears to be smaller in size, especially when compared to countries like Italy, Spain, US or China, the epicentre of coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister of India has announced a nation-wide lockdown on March 24 in order to ensure social distancing and minimize the spread of coronavirus by imposing restrictions on social and human-to-human interactions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned,  “India will have to pay a very high price if social distancing is not adhered to..”.

However, as of now, it is being witnessed that the norms of the social distancing have not been followed rigorously in India. There are certain sections from the Indian social strata that are either forced to work or, are not in a situation to follow social distancing even when the rest of the country is preferably staying at home.

The daily wage earners will be amongst the worst-hit which include vegetable and fruit sellers, sanitation workers, manufacturing workers, construction labourers etc. C.K. Saji Narayanan, the President of the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh, a trade union, mentioned that it is difficult for the daily wage earners to miss out their work as they do not have any social or economic safeguards, provided by their employers or the local authorities. Fear of losing jobs is a frightening fact for them. It is to be noted that almost 93 percent of the Indian workforce is engaged in informal sectors.

Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum in Mumbai reports first death due to Coronavirus/ Image: NYT

Apart from the fear of possible unemployment due to irregularity in workforce amidst an overall economic slowdown, the problem of space also becomes an issue for millions of Indians who cannot afford enough living space for themselves and their families. Mumbai, which is the financial and business capital of India, has a population density of around 73,000 per square mile which makes the city one of the densely populated cities in the world. Many of these people stay in slums, sharing small rooms along with others without proper access to personal hygiene including separate toilets and kitchens. According to some data, approximately 41 percent of people in the Greater Mumbai area stay in the slums whereas 9 percent of the total Indian population stays in various slums across the country.  The fact remains, only 5 percent of the Indians can afford a five-room apartment or house for a family of four-five members. It implies that the majority of Indians share their rooms with family members. Social distancing and home quarantine are therefore not only a poor people’s problem in India. 

The question is, whether the government and local authorities have any futuristic, innovative, sustainable and comprehensive umbrella plan for the unorganized labourers and daily wage earners. The umbrella plan needs to consider the social stigma associated with COVID-19, the economic losses due to the social distancing and lockdown and psychological trauma due to the emerging economic burden. A death in the family or neighbourhood due to COVID-19 may also add to the psychological trauma one might experience.

Healthcare workers in Kerala, India/ Image: Quartz

There is a need to have a three-tier strategy to manage the present pandemic crisis in India. In the first phase, early identification of the possible COVID-19 patients and providing necessary health infrastructure and medical facilities are essential. This should be accompanied by nation-wide campaign and awareness on personal hygiene, as prescribed by the WHO, through various media platforms including social media. In the second phase, the focus should be given on counselling and social support system for the individuals who had faced any kind of social/economic/emotional loss due to the pandemic. This needs to be accompanied by a comprehensive economic package for the individuals who are particularly involved in the unorganized and informal sector. Post the pandemic, the government and governance bodies should prioritize on the continuation of sensitization and awareness programmes for all including informal and unorganized sector employers and employees, local administrative authorities, health workers and medical professionals, civil society organisations to bring normalcy back in the society.

In Indian history, millions were killed by the plague epidemic between 1896 and 1900 and the Spanish Flu in 1918. Plague travelled from Asia to Europe. Spanish Flu was transferred from Europe to Asia. In both cases, India found it difficult to implement social protective measure to minimize the spread of the disease. Since then, more than 100 years have passed by and it is expected that independent India, rising India and pragmatic India will now be able to handle the COVID-19 pandemic crisis in a better way.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr. Sampa Kundu and Arpita Singh

Dr Sampa Kundu is an Assistant Professor at Amity Institute of Social Sciences, Amity University, Noida, India || Arpita Singh is a PhD Scholar at Amity Institute of Social Sciences, Amity University, Noida, India

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