COVID-19 measures should also acknowledge Mumbai’s poor
She lies on the pavement, every part of her body covered with a thin sheet. I pass by her every day. This is Uma, a child of the street, who will turn 18 next month. At the age of 16 she gave birth to a little girl, who will turn two next month.
As our world staggers with the reality of a deadly virus that is crossing borders and regions, spare a thought for those like Uma and her child. She has no walls that can provide her social isolation. She has no water with which to wash her hands. And she has no confidence to approach a health provider for fear she will be turned away. And this, in India’s richest city, Mumbai.
The crisis the world, and India, face with the steady spread of COVID-19, has exposed much about our societies. In India, above all it has exposed the callousness of the entitled and the weakness of our public health system.
The fact that the virus came to India because those with the money to travel abroad brought it in has still not sunk in. Every day you read stories of people who have travelled refusing to accept that they should voluntarily stay at home and not infect others, that they should get tested when required, and that they should accept isolation if tested positive.
Instead, what we witness is many who are simply not following this protocol. As a result, even though so far we are being told that there is no community spread of the virus, do we really know? Already in Mumbai, a domestic help tested positive because she works in a house where the owner, who had just returned from the US, tested positive. Multiply such instances and you get the picture.
And then, the women who work as domestics live in over-crowded urban settlements, where dozens occupy tiny spaces, where water is scarce and sanitation inadequate. The idea of “social isolation” in such a place is unimaginable.
How long before the infection spreads, if it has not already done so?
I ask because even as we concentrate on limiting the spread of infection, and increasing our capacity to test for COVID-19, we also need to address the unchanging reality like the living conditions of the urban poor that make the spread of infection virtually inevitable.
The most vulnerable are those without any shelter, like Uma. She is part of a family of waste pickers. Every day, they sort dry waste. They touch paper, cardboard, plastic and other forms of waste that would have been touched by many hands, including those with the infection. I haven’t heard of any plan to keep these citizens of our cities safe from infection.
Instead, middle class housing societies are talking of ways to shut the poor out, in the belief that they are the ones who carry the infection. Typically, they refuse to accept that it is their class that has contributed to the spread of the infection.
Not just accidentally because they happened to be in the countries that had already been stung by COVID-19. But by refusing to take the necessary precautions, such as social isolation and testing to ensure that no one else gets it.
If there is anything I wish at this time of death and disease it is that those with wealth realise that if we have a system that works for the poor, it will work for everyone. On the other hand, no privatised health system can prevent the spread of a deadly virus because it will automatically exclude those who are the most vulnerable, people like Uma.
(English original of the article in the fortnightly column titled ‘Akakkannu’ published in Mathrubhumi daily on March 29, 2020)