• Devangi Sharma

Poor Man’s Pandemic

The virus affects all alike, but the system helps those who can pay the price. For many sitting in the comfort of their lavish airconditioned homes this seems like an idyllic statement made by an overtly pessimistic person hoping to garner sympathy. But in today’s money minded world this is hardly far from reality. Healthcare is an industry and as history dictates the poor working class are being exploited. With the entire country blazing with the effects of the second wave, those with enough in their pockets have monopolized what little is available, and, as always, the poor receive the leftovers.


Income and Healthcare- An Unfortunate Relationship

With the public healthcare system run haggard with the astronomical number of cases, it is no secret that only a fraction of India's population has been able to get proper treatment during the raging second Covid-19 wave. Even those financially capable to afford critical drugs, oxygen and hospital beds have struggled during the Covid-19 crisis in India.

Many families were left with no choice but to desperately reach out for help on social media, where despite all intentions only some were able to find help. Social Media has been the necessary crutch for people to locate and acquire resources. Given the fact that only 32.3% of the population in India has access to social media, the true extent of the pandemic devastation, especially among the poor, has gone unnoticed.


Reportedly, 6 per cent of the poorest 20 per cent households had access to non-shared sources of improved sanitation, magnifying the speed of the spread of disease among poor communities, often living in crammed areas.


The lack of official government channels providing emergency support has heightened the effect.

As a result, black marketing of resources has flourished. Those with financial security are willing to pay the marked-up prices but, once again, poor families are left helpless.


Not only treatment, prevention also comes with a cost. With the government allowing private caregivers to sell vaccines at pre-decided rates, a single jab can cost anywhere from Rs 700 to Rs 1500, making these privatized offers one of the costliest in the world, an alarming situation for a country where a large number of people barely have enough to feed themselves. Free doses are administered by the govt, but the wait extends endlessly.


Another hurdle is the lack of healthcare benefits. Most salaried class individuals have access to health insurance, but those working in the informal or gig economy have no such benefits. Without these, the poorer families do not have the financial resource to approach private hospitals for treatment. The private sector consists of 58% of the hospitals in the country, 29% of beds in hospitals, and 81% of doctors. Treatment in these hospitals is rarely affordable to the majority of the population due to sky high prices. The poor are forced to rely on public healthcare system which hardly suffices.


One of the key reasons behind inadequate facilities at government-run hospitals is the abysmally low expenditure on public healthcare, the value being one of the lowest in the world.

Contrary to reports that healthcare allocation saw a 135 per cent rise in the latest Union Budget, the health outlay was merely Rs 71,269 crore. Simply put, the actual budget allocation towards healthcare in FY22 was lower than the revised estimates for FY21, according to public health experts.


Vacation for the rich, Devastation for the Poor

Insufficient healthcare availability is just the tip of the iceberg, with the pandemic threatening economic stability for a staggeringly large number of people living just above the poverty line. In fact, daily wage labourers and migrant workers suffered severely due to the pandemic after the nationwide lockdown was announced. Over 1.70 lakh people lost jobs every hour during the month of April 2020. One of the most alarming observations is that an additional 230 million or 23 crore Indians fell below the national minimum wage poverty line due to the devastating economic impact of the pandemic. All these individuals are now earning below the national minimum wage threshold of Rs 375 per day.


Loss of jobs was markedly higher in the formal sector, with many organizations downsizing and cutting corners to minimize losses. Salaried jobs in the country reduced after the pandemic and people were forced to look for self-employment options. For the poorer households, the only option was to become daily wage labourers. This disproportionately overburdened an already suffering informal sector economy.


Millions of migrant labourer, were displaced due to the pandemic and they were left without a job, income and even food. They form part of India’s vast unreported informal sector, which employs approximately 411 million workers

Unprotected by unions and politicians, these laborers often miss out on handouts from governments. After meeting daily expenses, they are left with little to pay for health care and medicines -- a risky situation especially when a pathogen is taking lives and sending thousands to intensive care at overcrowded hospitals running short of beds.

Over 300 informal workers died due to the lockdown, with reasons ranging from starvation, suicides, exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality and denial of timely medical care. The National Human Rights Commission recorded over 2,582 cases of human rights violation as early as in the month of April 2020.


The acute financial distress among the poorest families was accompanied with booming success for the top billionaires. For many of us, the ease of staying home with our families seems like an extended, albeit boring, holiday. However, for the lower incomed households it’s a holiday worthy of nightmares.


Educational Divide

Not just jobs and income, but inequalities have also increased in education during the pandemic.

Access to education for India’s poorest population has reduced with online education replacing physical classes. The report noted that just 3% of the poorest 20 per cent of Indian households had access to a computer, while just nine per cent had access to an internet connection.


Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Atishi at the Harvard India Conference 2021 shared that pre-Covid, the Delhi government schools had crossed the access barrier and were focusing more on bridging the learning gaps. However, with COVID-19, government schools are back to dealing with the issue of enrolment of students.

While education in elite private schools has been virtually uninterrupted, in government schools, the situation was a lot different since students did not have laptops or mobile phones or Wi-Fi at home and these children ended up missing an entire year.


With the pandemic virtually barring access to primary education for a vast number of people, the loss continually perpetuates an age-old problem. The vicious cycle of lack of education- low income jobs- poor quality of life will haunt the population. Already the economic situation for these households seems bleak and if not righted the future will possibly see miniscule improvement.


Conclusion

In a country where an estimated 60% is below the poverty line, using our privilege to deafen the sounds of those less stable only achieves national loss. People’s health has become a game of monopoly, with money being the get out of jail free card. If the trend continues, India will come out of the pandemic bankrupt, a shell of its former self.



SOURCES: India Today, The week, Oxfam America


~ Devangi Sharma