Covid-19 crisis is devastating India’s most desperate people: The Economist

New Delhi: India’s covid-19 crisis is devastating its most desperate people, The Economist said in a report.

The poor are losing jobs, going hungry and falling victim to scams, it added.

“Pye dogs and circling scavengers gave the first clue. When villagers approached the riverbank, the stench confirmed the horror. By the time authorities collected and buried all the bodies on May 11, the count had risen to 71. And this was at just one bend in the sacred Ganges, by the village of Chausa bordering Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, India’s most underdeveloped states. In the same week at least three other grisly human logjams were reported upstream,” the report said.

“These sad scenes reveal two things. One is the scale of the tragedy now sweeping India’s vast interior. Far away from city labs, no one gets tested, so no cases are recorded, so no deaths are captured in the national toll, which at 258,000 is a small fraction of the real tally,” The Economist reported.

The second thing the bodies in the Ganges reveal is how India’s second wave is worsening the already harsh lot of its poor.

“People borrow money to pay for medicines, or for oxygen, or for an ambulance driver who has charged them extra Covid rates,” Utpal Pathak, a local journalist was quoted in the report. “Then they can’t afford the funeral.” In recent weeks, say residents of Chausa, the cost of a cremation has tripled. It is telling that the authorities, despite denying that poverty has anything to do with the scandal, have started supplying free wood to the funeral ghats of Chausa. Bihar has also capped the price of ambulances.

After the first Covid-19 wave swept India last year, numerous reports tried to tally the cost to the poor. Pew, an American research institute, estimates that whereas just 4.3 per cent of Indians were earning less than $2 a day in January 2020, a year later, this had risen to 9.7 per cent.

A study by Azim Premji University in Bangalore suggests that after last year’s nationwide lockdown, some 230 million Indians slipped below a poverty threshold tied to the national minimum wage (around $45 a month). During the lockdown, 90 per cent of the poor consumed less food. Six months later, their diets had not returned to normal. In one year, the earnings of Indian workers, including the 10 per cent holding salaried jobs, declined by a third, The Economist said.

Shocked by the pain it caused last year, the central government has left state and local governments to impose their own lockdowns during this wave.

“But though the economy has not come to a complete standstill, the sheer scale of the outbreak means lots of families have suffered just as much,” the report said.

For many, the biggest blow has been the loss of breadwinners. Indian Railways, which employs 1.2m people, says Covid has killed 1,952 of its staff. Uttar Pradesh put 1.2m civil servants to work running local elections and counting ballots in April. The vote was a super-spreader and an estimated 2,000 of these workers subsequently died, including 800 schoolteachers, the report said. Each of those deaths represented weeks of trauma and expense for the families seeking treatment.

The report added that one in every 20 families is pushed into poverty by medical expenses, all too often in order to pay for unnecessary treatments prescribed by harried doctors, or to provide basic items lacking in government hospitals, from oxygen tanks to syringes.


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