The Sources and Spreading of COVID-19 in India* – Raj Sahai

On March 24, Modi announced a national lockdown for 21 days, which he extened to May 3, 2020. However, preparation for the lockdown were minimal. The worst affected were the migrant workers but also all the urban workers who live hand to mouth, which is roughly 2/3rd of India’s population. With transportation shut down, the migrant workers found themselves stranded and without money to buy and prepare their meals. Many walked hundreds of miles, some died of exhaustion, dehydration etc...

The Sources and Spreading of COVID-19 in India* – Raj Sahai

Novel Corona Virus or better known as COVID-19, was first detected in India in the southern-most state of Kerala on January 30, and two additional cases by February 3, 2020. All were of the victims were the returning students from Wuhan, China. On February 22, additional 22 cases were detected in the state of Rajasthan, situated approx. 2000 miles to the north of Kerala. This consisted of 14 Italian tourists and 8 staff members of the hotel serving them. On March 12, first death in India was reported, a 76 year oldnman who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia after the Haj pilgrimage. On March 10-12, a Sikh religious precher returning from a trip to Italy and Germany carried infections to a sikh religious gathering in Anandpur-Sahib town, infecting 28 others. On March 9-10, the Hindu festival of “Holi”, celebrated with colors both dry and wet in gatherings of the neighborhood, with sharing of sweets and people embracing each other, was very subdued, with the Prime Minister saying he’d not be celebrating it in that way because of the threat of Corona Virus. On March 15, 100 cases of COVID-19 were identified, which must have had some cases of transmission of COVID-19. But Hindu temples, many of which drew tens of thousands continued to receive devotees until March 19, 2020, when the steps were taken to voluntarily curtail these visits. The numbers of identified cases increased to 1,000 by March 28, 2020. On March 13-15 a Muslim religious gathering of a sect called the Tablighi Jamaat event emerged as a new virus spreader. There were 9,000 religious attendees from nearly every state of India, but also included 960 men from 40 foreign countries, including some that had already become hotbeds of COVID-19. As of April 16, 4,291 out of 14,365, i.e., nealy 30% of the cases linked to this one incident. As of April 24, 2020, the government health ministry identified cases in India stand at just under 25,000 with 781 deaths. Global cases are estimated to be 2.75 million, and deaths are approaching 200,000. Largest cases in India are reported in Mumbai, India’s financial center, at 4,447, followed by Delhi at 2,514. These two cities are destinations of vast majority of air-travellers to India.

Hindutva and Targeting of Muslim Minority

India’s economic politics changed around 1990, when The Congress Party led government opened the country to foreign capital, which was until then under tight restrictions. From a government owned large industrial enterprises, which was the model used by the economic planners beginning in 1947, when India gained polical independence, this change in economic system to privatization and doors opened to foreign capital for investment resulted in faster economic growth, but it also increased economic inequality in society. The strongly secular Congress Party had begun to tilt towards the Hindu identity politics, though not openly, by 1970, after food crises began to undermine the government of Indira Gandhi. Congress Party remained dominant, but the BJP, the current ruling party began to emerge as a competitor. This party began to represent the small businessmen and brought Hindu identity at the center of its appeal. Hindutva is an ideology that says that only Hindus have the genuine claim to citizenship of India. Muslims and other minorities can live in India, but must accept that this country has the ethos of Hinduism and do not try to assert equality of their religions to that of Hindus. This goes directly against secular Indian consitution, but the BJP plays with the constitution: paying it lip service while opposing it in substance. It plays on the sense of humiliation felt by middle class Hindus that India was conquered by Muslim invaders and ruled it for centuries. The 15th century Babri Masjid was demolished by “volunteers” organized by the BJP in 1992, and as a result it began to gain more seats in Indian parliament and in the state assemblies. But under Narendra Modi, the present PM, it gained a majority with small parties as allies for the first time in 2014 and them again in 2019, with itself emerging as majority party in Indian parliament. Two other elements in the success of Hindutva ideology and BJP as political party are rise of political Islam in the Middle East and Pakistan’s use of mujahideens to try and wrest Kashmir valley from India. Congress Party after the 2014 elections has been marginalized. In each state elections since 2014, besides the two general elections, appeal to Hindu chauvinism, and blaming of Muslims for India’s problems has been the BJP main tactic. So, when the Tablighi Jamaat emerged as a significant spreader of COVID-19, this acquired a fever-pitch in the mass media, which has become openly pro-Modi, as it is privately owned by big capitalists, almost all of who are also Hindu and supporters of Modi. It is because Modi is openly pro-capitalist class but he is also able to project himself as nationalist leader who cares for the poor. He has earned this by some populist programs: cooking gas at cheap prices for the poor households and clealiness drive and paying attention to diaspora Indians who then fund his party and feel as part of his nationalism.

The conditions of workers and COVID-19

The population of India is approx. 1.3 billion. Number of workers are 540 million, of which 40% are agricultural workers or peasants owning very small parcels of lands, i.e., they are poor peasants, who work part time in the cities to supplement their farm income. Service workers are 35%, and industrial workers 25%. Most of the industrial and service workers work in small enterprises. Over 90% of workers are not part of  trade unions. Thus 324 million industrial and service workers live and work in conditions where social distancing is physically almost impossible. Of these, 139 million workers are migrant workers, who come either from from villages to the cities from the same state or from other sates. They live in slums or in otherwise very inadequate housing. Water for them is not plentiful and in certain states, the water table is so low that in summer, water is brought in tankers. So washing of hands 10-20 times a day is just about impossible. The workers are also divided not just by religion, but also caste, that ancient, precapital division of labor. Among the lowest in its 4 major divisions are the Dalits, who were and are to some extent also considered “untouchable” because they do the most polluting of all tasks: cleaning lavatories of the upper caste and upper class people, animal skinning, leather tanning, sweep cleaning of the streets, boatmen ferrying goods and passengers, etc. BJP uses them to dominate the muslims in situations it creates itself to take advantage of it in elections. Communists have influence in trade unions, and control some of the trade unions, but so do the BJP and Congress Parties, i.e., the organized workers are divided between Left, Center and Right Wing parties.

Government Strategy to Fight COVID-19

The Indian government blocked travel from COVID-19 affected countries relatively early in February and on 22 March Modi mobilized masses by a speech addressing this new health threat. This contrasts with Trump in the US, who kept denying the threat. On March 24, Modi announced a national lockdown for 21 days, which he extened to May 3, 2020. However, preparation for the lockdown were minimal. The worst affected were the migrant workers but also all the urban workers who live hand to mouth, which is roughly 2/3rd of India’s population. With transportation shut down, the migrant workers found themselves stranded and without money to buy and prepare their meals. Many walked hundreds of miles, some died of exhaustion, dehydration etc. The government belatedly and inadequately organized food for these migrant workers and the states from where these workers came, organized transportation, often also in a haphazrd manner. To the upper classes, which are also primarily the upper castes, the lives of the poor and the low caste have little value in India.

The fight against COVID-19 is based on containment strategy in India. All 738 districts of the country are divided into three zones: Red, Orange, Green. Red are those where infections double in less that 4 days; orange are the zones where these double in more than 4 days; and green are the areas where there is no known COVID-19 infection. These categories change as the infection spreads or is eliminated, as when people recover from the infection or die, and there are no more known cases. The affected red zones get more intense surveillance by testing, using tests that are less reliable but quick. Pool testing is done to save cost, where 5 different persons’ blood is pooled for a test, and if it comes negative no further testing is required, but if test comes out positive, then all 5 are tested individually. This saves money, as most people are still negative. Those showing symptoms, such as fever, coughing etc. are tested using tests that are more reliable and expensive and time consuming.  This intrusive approach of isolating the affected areas, along with lockdown seems to have slowed down the spread of the virus, but only time will reveal whether community transmissions have been limited. The number of deaths less than 800 as of now, though may not be reliable, as those who died in homes, may not have been counted, nevertheless is such a low number, that compared to the US, Spain, Italy, U.K., India seems to have been more successful so far in dealing with this pandemic.

But the fact that the economic disruption is very hard on the vast majority of the workers, means deaths from lack of money would increase. The situation therefore is far from resolved. But that is also the situation in most developed countries where this virus has hit hard, the US foremost among them. The political dimensions of this health crisis on India are impossible to predict at this point in time. Only time will reveal its real impact.

* Raj Sahai tarafından Sendika.Org için İngilizce kaleme alınan bu yazı Mehmet Bayram tarafından çevrilmiştir.

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