KT Special: WFH is not an option for daily wage earners

They have broken free from viral fears and jingoistic nationalism.


Allan Jacob

Published: Sun 6 Sep 2020, 7:31 AM

Last updated: Sun 6 Sep 2020, 12:44 PM

Fear has driven the coronavirus discourse for eight months in a lost year. Health, safety and community have been the focus. This overhanging fear has led to want. Desires have been delayed as living with the coronavirus has become the priority.
In the first stage, when lockdowns were enforced, people stayed home. Fear, the dominant emotion ensured survival. In the second stage they believed this too shall pass, only that it did not at the appointed hour while they clung to some whispering hope of a vaccine.
In the third stage, which is now, they have gathered some resolve to "live in harmony with the coronavirus" (if they can afford to). Others, (mostly the working class) have taken it further by leaving their homes and dared to make their living despite the threat in the air.
Masked, contactless existence in the cliched 'new normal' has sealed our pact with the virus. But what happens when the first wave mutates into one long wave like it has in India and the United States? Informal workers and the poor are the worst affected and forced to move from their areas of confinement.
Other countries, meanwhile, are preparing for a second wave which experts predict could be more dangerous than the first with the onset of autumn and winter. The virus is doing strange things to the mind as people struggle to keep body and soul together in isolation, quarantined and away from their loved ones.
Let's not forget that the pandemic began in Wuhan, China late last year. The early lockdown was swift, sweeping and effective, while in India, it has been long and painful as cases continue to rise and set new records. Daily infections have risen to more than 80,000 but the government has been busy papering over cracks in the system after the Great Indian Lockdown turned into a nightmare.
Concerned, I called a friend, a gutsy, wise journalist in Chennai, a city in south India for a first-hand account of the damage the virus had caused on people's lives. "How do daily wage earners feed themselves? You can say 'don't step out for work, respect the lockdown'; will you feed them," snapped the man in righteous anger. He had gone AWOL for over month, and my concerns, I protested, were genuine, but he was in no mood to listen.
"What coronavirus? People have had enough. They depend on daily work and pay; you and I can afford to stay indoors in these conditions, not the impoverished," he bellowed from the other end. There was no stopping the man as he launched into a tirade with a liberal stream of expletives in Tamil that I dare not translate.
He had unlocked his pent-up emotions and was speaking about the frustration that has taken hold of people in a country of 1.3 billion that is set to go into Unlock 4 - a phase during which the lockdown is lifted and which comes with a fresh wave of uncertainty. It's a grim reality that workers in developing countries are willing to confront, even if it means putting their lives at risk.
Studies say a deep recession caused by the pandemic could drive half a billion people into poverty, or 8 per cent of the world's population. A 20 per cent fall in global income can be expected which would heap more misery on families.
A complete shutdown may be easing into smaller and targeted containment measures in India. The government believes the time is ripe to reopen the economy even as daily cases hit new highs. Exams must be held, futures are at stake; there are millions of mouths to feed. The argument is not without merit. In developing countries like India lockdowns are harder to enforce as 90 per cent of the workforce are in the informal sector that comprises street vendors, domestic workers and construction labourers. In Africa, 86 per cent are daily wage earners, while in Latin America, the number is lower, at 50 per cent.
The World Health Organization, however, is warning countries not to lift restrictions if cases are not brought under control while providing few alternatives for those who must go out and literally sweat for a living. A Work from Home (WFH) option is not for those who toil to build bridges, lay roads, and work on construction sites.
Chastened after being traumatised by the blistering attack, I tuned in to Indian PM Narendra Modi's Mann Ki Baath (from the heart) speech for some solace. I was disappointed when I realised the PM was on a different frequency as he waxed eloquent about manufacturing Indian toys and breeding home-grown canines. There was more bark than bite in his weekly speech that was a pitch for atmanirbhar, (self-reliance) much like my other favourite elected politician Donald Trump. The US president's hyperbolic mission to Make America Great Again, and again this year has made me lose interest in the presidential election.
Meanwhile, the working classes and the poor have risen above the jingoism and broken through lockdowns and containment zones. They are coming to terms with the coronavirus. Their angst is past. They have broken free from fear.

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