The untouchables: COVID-19 lockdown and the migrants

Social-distancing on the one hand and slipping back to age-old social discrimination on the other hand can break backs 

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 11 May 2020

Often, while reporting distress migration from rural areas, I come across many migrants making a powerful statement: “Distressed we are in cities; but we escaped the social regression of caste system imposed on in the village.”

Not that only villages practice the Great Indian Genetic Caste Hierarchy. But the poor, who belong to the lower hierarchy in this system, suffer the most. These are the people who migrate out in distress the most.

They grow up with social distances; these situations never create the right opportunity for them and keep them always at the mercy of a wealthy few; they move out because of it and finally become “the migrants”.

In cities / towns they remain poor but somehow the caste barrier feels distant. But what when they are forced back into that society for a longer period?

Irrespective of grand sermons on the virus being secular and not recognising the social, religious and caste barriers, migrants have become the new pariahs. “Migrants” and “social-distancing” are much in news. In fact, if social-distancing has impacted anyone in a deadly way it is the migrant population (more in this later).

Escaping out of a social distance and eking out a life far away, as they come back, another type of social-distancing haunts them. As millions of migrants now return to villages, they face two discriminatory distances.

First, they are assumed to be carrier of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Thus, they must be kept in medically prescribed quarantine. The period of it has been increasing — in Odisha, one has to spend 28 days in quarantine.

The quarantine is partly necessary, given their places of work might have been affected by COVID-19 spread. Anyway, social-distancing is the norm for all of us.

But the popular perception has become a conviction: Migrants are the carriers of the virus. They endure further distancing. In the last few weeks, we have widespread reports of villages not allowing their own migrant residents inside.

Even, hundreds of migrants walking to their villages are being vilified on way as many villages have stopped them from crossing their geographical area for the fear of the virus being spread.

In Odisha, some even went to the high court, which ruled that only COVID-19-free migrants would be allowed inside into the state. The Supreme Court, fortunately, stayed the order.

Second, the distance they have endured from birth, due to the caste system, will be even more pronounced. Socially and economically disadvantaged groups have always being kept out of the development bonanza.

They have the least landholding; they have the least access to irrigation; they have the least level of education. Now, without the livelihoods they could pursue outside, they are back in the old regressive system that has perpetuated inequality.

One can argue that the massive relief operations and packages being implemented would help them out. And secular government and non-government systems would not bring back the social distances of caste and class in this time of crisis.

But, pandemics in the past have demonstrated that inequality has been widened in such crises. To begin with, pandemics have impacted the already poor and marginalised the most.

Researches say that the pandemic of 1918 was “social neutral”, but scientific examinations showed that those who share rooms / apartments with higher population density suffered the most, or died the most.

Who are these people who had to share apartments / rooms? Invariably, they were migrant workers from the lower economic strata.

The current pandemic is no different, as far as the migrants or the poor workers are concerned. A recent research paper by IMF’s Davide Furceri, Prakash Loungani, Jonathan D Ostry and Pietro Pizzuto of the University of Palermo shows “the shares of incomes going to the top deciles increases and that to the bottom deciles falls after a pandemic event”.

According to their research based on the last five pandemics:

The share of income going to the top two deciles is 46 per cent on average, while the share going to the bottom two deciles is only 6 per cent — a gap of 40 percentage points.

After five years of a pandemic, this gap in inequality in distribution of income increased by 2.5 percentage points.

It is known that a poor’s economy depends a lot on her interactions with society. The poorer she gets, the more her dependence on others. So, social-distancing is an economic punishment of highest order.

If you are already at the margins of the country’s social and economic systems, it will become more acute — the pandemic’s social side-effect.

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