The COVID-19 situation may improve with increased vaccinations, but temperatures will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, putting outdoor workers at risk of heat stress
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has upended lives across the world, but has not been the only catastrophe to do so. Over 50 million people have been hit by both COVID-19 and climate-related disasters such as floods, droughts, storms and extreme temperatures in 2020 alone.
In May 2021, Cyclone Tauktae hit Maharashtra and Gujarat — just as these states were dealing with most severe COVID-19 wave in India.
Out of 128 countries, India has been the most affected by climate- and weather-related disasters in recent years. Climate change is gathering strength; the average temperature rose by around 0.7 degrees Celsius during 1901-2018. It is anticipated to increase further by more than 4°C in the absence of significant mitigation efforts by the end of the 21st century.
Exposure to excessive heat creates occupational health impacts for workers, both outdoor and indoor, affecting their performance and efficiency.
India is projected to lose 5.8 per cent of working hours in 2030 and the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs due to heat stress in South Asia, according to an International Labour Organization report. The agricultural sector will be impacted the most.
The Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), Pune, a non-profit engaged in community development, conducted a rapid assessment after the summer of 2020 in rural areas of Jalna district (Ambad and Jafrabad blocks) in central Maharashtra. This was to understand people’s perceptions and experiences of COVID-19 lockdown, their exposure to heat and its impact on health.
At least 24 telephonic interviews were conducted with people aged between 25 and 45 years, all engaged in farming and related livelihood activities.
Impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods: In general, the initial COVID-19 lockdown period was characterised by stress, fear and anxiety for the village communities. The restrictions resulted in the freezing of most economic activities in nearby cities and towns.
Out of fear and anxiety, many villages shut their boundaries and imposed restriction on movement in and out of the villages, except for essential reasons (such as medical care, banking needs, etc).
Agriculture is the primary livelihood activity in these villages with few households engaged in non-farm activities, such as construction and sugarcane cutting labourers. Due to restrictions on movement, people were confined within their village. The selling of agricultural produce to the market outside the villages was also disrupted.
Outdoor heat exposure: For landless agriculture labourers, the lockdown was a difficult time as they had almost no work. Public works under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) were initiated after regular follow up by WOTR. This enabled several poor and landless households to survive during the lockdown period.
Farmers and labourers started work earlier, both to avoid the heat at the peak of day and each other. While this altered work schedule enabled social distancing, it did reduce work duration.
Construction of roads and watershed works adhered to all standard COVID-19 safety precautions.
While working outside, men and women use gamcha (a big handkerchief) and scarf to cover the face and head to avoid direct heat exposure. These also acted as face masks for people.
Provision of common drinking water facility was avoided at the MGNREGS work sites and workers were encouraged to carry their own water. Everyone preferred having lunch and afternoon rest at home as against the usual practice of having these with co-workers at the work site.
Several households temporarily shifted their residence from village to a temporary hut built near farmland to ensure physical distancing. Restrictions on non-essential outdoor movements, such as going to markets and visiting family, resulted in reduced heat exposure and stress usually experienced while on the road.
Many migrants who had returned to their villages also reported experiencing heat stress. They had to follow a mandatory quarantine, during which they were lodged in village school buildings having tin roofs.
In the absence of fans and with many people confined together, conditions rapidly deteriorated. People reported spending as much time as possible with their children outside under the trees.
There were no electricity cuts during summer as all the industrial activities were shut. With outdoor exposure limited and having cooling facilities inside house, only mild HRS such as sweating, dry mouth, intense thirst and headache were reported.
No incidences of severe HRS (hallucinations, and fainting) occurred. Preparing food inside the house on chullah during summers leads to additional heat exposure for women. With considerable time spent cooking, women reported experiencing mild HRS like eye irritation, sweating, headache, intense thirst and fatigue. Most of these symptoms needed no treatment and got cured with time.
The summer of 2021 is still ongoing with heat conditions similar to 2020; rural areas have been spared the extreme heat waves of pre-COVID-19 years while lockdowns returned.
Rural areas in India will be battling the latest COVID-19 wave for some time but with increased vaccination, restrictions will be eased and life may return to near-normal soon. Temperatures, however, will continue to rise for the foreseeable future and outdoor workers and their families will be increasingly exposed to heat stress.
To reduce heat-related vulnerabilities of rural communities, people will need to continue to adjust behaviour, government departments such as the India Meteorological Department should help strengthen preparedness, and local health and line departments need to coordinate and implement appropriate policies to improve healthcare systems to better prevent and respond — all to build and strengthen adaptive capacities.
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