Perennially invisibilized, sanitation workers, domestic helps, and sex workers have been some of the worst sufferers of the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Their tragic stories are a searing reminder of India’s failure to help its most vulnerable.
COVID-19 has bared open deep-rooted inequalities, social and economic all over the world. Data has shown that people of color – African-Americans and Latinos – have been disproportionately affected and killed by COVID-19 in the United States. For all its barbarity, the virus has one redeeming feature – it isn’t racially discriminating. So, the actual reasons for the disproportionate kill rate in minorities are lack of access to healthcare and testing, poorer living conditions, and the existence of co-morbidities. They often live in cramped spaces where the luxury of social distancing isn’t possible.
Although a similar study, community, religion, or caste-based, has not been conducted in India, there are sections of people who’ve been affected worse than others by the Coronavirus lockdown.
Perennially invisibilized, sanitation workers, domestic workers, and sex workers are never the stuff of conversation.
The silence of their battle against the tyranny of fate is in marked contrast to the cacophony of our collective agony on social media. COVID-19 has foregrounded a savage reality of India’s class divisions and its direct impact on the population during a pandemic.
Sanitation Workers – Cleaners Deemed Unclean
Euphemistically known as sanitation workers, India’s Dalit manual scavengers are detested more than they are deified. Ironically, even their deification likely stems from the subliminal desire to eternally see them in that profession. But that’s a story for another day.
Since sanitation workers fall under the essential services category, they continue to be called to work i.e. to manually clean sewers and septic tanks. While fear of the virus makes many balk even at the thought of coming into contact with unclean surfaces, sanitation workers diving into cesspools of infection, digging out toxic filth – human excreta and medical waste – often with bare hands.
It must be noted that under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013, it is mandatory for the person getting a sanitation job done to provide workers with ‘protective gear’. Unfortunately, this is not being followed, not even now when the risk of infection is far greater. These desperately poor people do not have the choice of refusing work, even if it means embracing the risk of death. While doctors and para-medical staff are hailed as frontline workers, the efforts of sanitation workers – notwithstanding their unimaginably hazardous conditions of work – in combating COVID-19 are scarcely acknowledged.
Perhaps, it is time our development trajectory was re-examined. The relatively prosperous states of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat – in that order – lead the list of states with the highest cases of sanitation workers’ deaths while cleaning sewers and septic tanks since 1993. Surely, the stench of political apathy is greater than that of the sewers which fellow humans unblock for a pittance.
Domestic Workers – Plummeting Into Penury
Trapped in the merry-go-round of household chores, urban middle-class families must wistfully recall the good old days of imperiously ordering around their ‘maids’. But never mind the hopeless dependence, domestic helps have not been treated kindly – neither by the lockdown nor by their employers. Although the guidelines of Lockdown 3.0 permitted self-employed service providers such as household helps, electricians, and plumbers to move freely, except in containment zones, a thick cloud of confusion continued to prevail. Residents Welfare Associations (RWA) of various gated colonies and apartment complexes came forward as concerned guardians of their co-residents, refusing to let domestic workers in, lest they infect their employers and in turn, others in their vicinity. Some RWA representatives openly stated they weren’t sure how much ‘hygiene’ domestic helps maintained or if the shanty towns they came from were free of the virus. Disturbing reports also surfaced of employers denying them entry into homes and most egregiously, refusing to pay their dues even for the days they had worked in March.
An overwhelming majority of domestic workers in India are women. Since domestic work is part of the informal sector and not governed by a regulatory framework, labour laws do not recognize domestic workers. Saddled with familial responsibilities and often compelled to work long work hours at paltry wages, domestic helps have become marginalized forever. But the COVID-19-induced lockdown has exacerbated their woes. Forced to survive on free rations and community kitchens, many are contemplating going back to their villages. Another heartbreaking exodus in the offing?
Sex Workers – Humans With Half Lives
Sex work, one of the world’s oldest professions, is also the most stigmatized and reviled. No wonder the onslaught of Coronavirus and the lockdown has been particularly damaging on sex workers in India. The eerie silence that continues to cloak the warrens of gaunt streets across India’s ill-famed red-light districts – GB Road in Delhi, Kamathipura in Mumbai, Sonagachi in Kolkata – even as the engine of daily life has begun sputtering elsewhere is testimony to this. Historically marginalized, India’s sex workers are besieged by a sea of problems – loss of earnings, severely limited access to healthcare, dried up savings, and an uncertain future. It must be noted that a large number of sex workers are illegally trafficked from rural areas or neighboring countries like Nepal, which essentially means they do not have the documents required to benefit from the Public Distribution System (PDS).
Since most government hospitals are overwhelmed due to COVID-19 and smaller clinics in and around red-light areas are closed, those with HIV or other pre-existing ailments are facing a perilous, life-threatening situation. With researchers predicting that keeping brothels closed after the easing of lockdown could reduce the number of COVID-19 cases by 72%, the future looks no less fraught than the present. Although virtual sex, via phone or video chat, is picking up among younger sex workers, its sustainability or utility among older workers is questionable.
On 11 May, the Delhi HC declined to entertain a PIL that sought to direct the central and AAP Governments to extend welfare measures such as food, aid, and medicines to sex workers and the LGBT community during the lockdown. Judicial abnegation, political insouciance, and social neglect – the odds are dauntingly stacked against sex workers as they try and scramble out of the quicksand.
The Night, Long & Dark
There is never light at the end of the tunnel because the tunnel never ends for these embattled groups of people. But the reign of injustice cannot go on forever. Authorities must be roused from their reverie. They need to make sure that sanitation workers are provided protective equipment and better wages, domestic workers are given their jobs and dues, including payment for the entire duration of the lockdown.
Sex workers must be able to access relief measures, including PDS and medical facilities.
But these are immediate steps. Indeed, without according dignity to sanitation work by paying decent wages and mechanizing the process, or creating a regulatory framework for domestic labour and sex work in which these jobs are given legal recognition and treated on a par with other kinds of labour, the exploitation of these vulnerable groups will continue unabated.
The lockdown has begun to melt. The political elite looking to ensconce back into their elite complacency must remember that if nothing is done now, they’ll only go down in history as apathetic fools who let go of the immense opportunity to reduce the social and economic inequities that COVID-19 had so unreservedly exposed.