The Covid-19 Camouflage
By Dr. Ritu Dewan
Dr. Ritu Dewan is a passionate activist as well as a first generation feminist-economist in India. She was, till her retirement, the first-ever woman Director of the Department of Economics, University of Mumbai. Having over a hundred publications,she also conducts training and capacity-building workshops related to gender budgeting and gender issues. Her research focus is generally the result of issues related to the marginalised.
What the pandemic has done is bring to the fore the huge structural divides and inequities that have characterised India for long. In this context the divide between growth and development has existed for long. However, the central focus of what is happening today is not so much the impact of the pandemic but the utterly inadequate and inhumane policy responses to the pandemic – giving a 4-day notice to light lamps and clang plates, and 4 hours for an entire nation to shut down, a nation that consists of migrants who constitute almost a third of the workforce. The ‘Stay at Home’ slogan for millions who have no home, who are forced to eke a living far away from their homes, especially women, who have virtually no homes.
The economy was already in a huge crisis before the pandemic, and the manner in which the pandemic has been sought to be dealt with has only exacerbated the collapse of the economy. There is a huge amount of evidence for the pre-pandemic economic destruction: largest fall in GDP 2019-20 before the pandemic; fall in actual money wages; collapse of demand with little money in the hands of the majority of the people; a demand crises that is sought to be rectified by a supply-based response; rise in poverty by 5 percent for first time in 4 decades; sharp decline in female workforce especially in urban India; decline in share of wages to total production cost; introduction of the Labour Codes that take away the rights of workers which they have fought for for almost a century; privatisation of insurance; increasing informalisation; introduction of the Trafficking Act that equates trafficking with especially women’s migration for employment; Smart cities with little space in policy or in city for labour and none at all for women; utterly inadequate housing that is neither affordable nor decent: the list is long.
And under what I call the Covid-19 Camouflage, a further liquidation of people’s and worker’s rights by extending work days, reducing wages, denying of even the basics such as water and rest. A ‘relief’ package that is a sleight-of-hand which combines various allocations already done; a loan package when concrete financial support is needed; combining of self-reliance with increased foreign investment; massive push towards privatisation and sale of people’s resources including publicly owned enterprises;
Among the most severely impacted are women’s rights – both as economic agents and as equal citizens: denial of crèches and maternity leave under the newly instituted labour ‘reforms’ initiated by several states; a ‘temporary’ stay on several reproductive rights under the guise of focusing healthcare on the pandemic; reduction in salaries of nurses who constitute the largest group of front-line health workers; non-payment of salaries to ASHA workers; virtual stoppage in most states of midday meals and the ICDS which provide at least some nutrition particularly to girls; a massive increase in domestic violence including of those who are now compelled to work at home. And something which is already invisibilized – an unprecedented increase in the unpaid work burden – and now even more so with ‘social’ distancing.
I consciously reject the term ‘Social Distancing’: we are already so distant – in terms of communities, class, gender, race, caste, abilities, conscience. It is Physical Distancing.