In the Covid era we need to ponder on the kind of social and economic system that we have today – which has no regard for the lives, livelihood and wellbeing of the very people who work and create wealth.

Source of image: https://qz.com/india/1903018/indias-covid-19-lockdown-displaced-at-least-10-million-migrants/

By BA and Venkatesh Sundaram

The Covid crisis that has been sweeping the world since around January 2020 has caused suffering on an unprecedented level to most of mankind.  The level of “excess deaths” and illnesses and hospitalisation and subsequent after-effects and recovery is on a scale not seen since the great pandemic of 1918-1920 due to the influenza virus that ravaged many parts of the world.  That pandemic also caused the maximum number of deaths in India, with millions wiped out.  In addition to tens of thousands of deaths and widespread sickness, working people have had to suffer many other consequences too.

On March 25, 2020, with just 4 hours’ notice, the Government of India announced a country-wide lockdown of 21 days which has been considered the harshest lockdown in the world.  There were scenes of persons being beaten up and hosed with chemicals that shocked the conscience of the people of India and the world.  It soon led to the `migrant’ crisis with lakhs of workers walking back home to their villages in faraway places, covering as much as over a 1000 km on foot during the harshest summer months.  Many came back some months later to their former places of employment to find an economy that had been shattered by the lockdown.

During one of the quarters, the economy shrunk by over 25%, once again unprecedented in over 4 decades.  As the economy started limping back, the country was thrown open, , elections conducted with massive rallies by BJP and other political parties without precautions being taken; likewise various religious congregations allowed and encouraged – all leading to a second wave of unimaginable proportions.  In this situation, millions of jobless persons whose savings have run out can barely afford any kind of medical assistance, leave alone hospitalisation.

Almost everywhere in the country, skilled labour has run out of employment possibilities.  Factories are idled, and the economy is in a tailspin.  Workers who may have had an ability to do collective bargaining are now out of jobs and so there is no question of doing any kind of bargaining.  Putting food on the table has become an impossibility.

In the so-called `white collar’ sector, consisting of, say, media, entertainment, Information Technology, banking, hospitality, travel, etc – many sectors such as travel, hotels, entertainment were largely shut down for months on end, and tens of thousands of workers young and old are without livelihood. It is hard to imagine what the situation is in the arenas of skilled labour, construction industry, small manufacturing, and unskilled labour to name some examples.

For the IT and many other sectors, the new norm is `Work from Home’.  A concept that first arose in the modern context that was to give flexibility to workers to avoid tough commutes, and to meet with customers living in different time zones, or to parents of young children suddenly has become the order of the day.  Whereas the country has some investments in microwave tower technology, optic fibre technology and so on to accord fast internet connections, and due to the relative availability of computers and smart phone and peripherals, it was suddenly made into the main modus operandi for employees of IT companies, big and small.

Unlike in the past, where hours of work were limited, it’s all now replaced with more and more `flexibility’ with workers having to be on call at all hours of the day and night without any regulation.  There is no longer any possibility of meeting colleagues in person and having any kind of camaraderie.  Many persons living in relatively small dwellings have now to create office space in their homes causing great discomfort to themselves and to their families.  Coupled with the hardships of lockdowns and restricted hours, and having to work such long hours, a whole new set of occupational hazards have surfaced and will continue to do so. Body ache, backache and eyestrain, severe headaches and other physical and mental health problems, are troubling tens of thousands of people all over India due to this.  In an environment where there is a collapse of job opportunities, employers keen on cost cutting, cutting back on employees and wages and on showing profit, very ruthless exploitation of labour is taking place at the cost of workers’ health and wellbeing in the arena of mental work.

Another sector which has been using the internet backbone of the country, which is hardly capable to handling the vast traffic on it is education.  Educational institutions – schools, colleges, universities – have been forced to go online with teachers having to carry out their work with extremely limited infrastructure, often procured with one’s sparse savings, and students struggling to cope with this method of learning.  It has led to a spate of mental illnesses and depression as is frequently mentioned in the print and social media.

In some cases, workers affected by these measures have united and raised demands, such as reducing the working hours to 6 each day during lockdown periods, removing otherwise high expectations of productivity targets, meeting of internet and electricity charges by the employers and so on.

The Covid era has produced a new set of challenges for working people of the country as well as the youth.  One must take a careful and sober audit of the happenings – which will make it clear that the government is responsible for the condition that people find themselves in today.  We must take the opportunity to ponder on the kind of social and economic system that we have today – which has no regard for the lives, livelihood and wellbeing of the very people who work and create wealth.

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