A pandemic in an unequal India


  • The official strategies to deal with the virus place the responsibility on citizens, a majority without privilege, to fight the virus.

COVID-19 pandemic lashes India with severity:

  • If the COVID-19 pandemic lashes India with severity, it will not be just the middle class who will be affected.
  • India’s impoverished millions are likely to overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the suffering which will ensue.
  • Inequality and impact of a pandemic: The privileged Indian has been comfortable for too long with some of the most unconscionable inequalities in the planet.
  • But with the pandemic, each of these fractures can decimate the survival probabilities and fragile livelihoods of the poor.

The health system  

  • Low investment in public health: India’s investments in public health are among the lowest in the world, and most cities lack any kind of public primary health services.
  • A Jan Swasthya Abhiyan estimate is that a district hospital serving a population of two million may have to serve 20,000 patients, but they are bereft of the beds, personnel and resources to do this. Few have a single ventilator.
  • The poor left with meagre services: India’s rich and middle-classes have opted out of public health completely, leaving the poor with unconscionably meagre services.
  • The irony is that a pandemic has been brought into India by people who can afford plane tickets, but while they will buy private health services, the virus will devastate the poor who they infect and who have little access to health care.

No preparation by the states

  • Official strategies placing responsibility on citizens: Most of the official strategies place the responsibility on the citizen, rather than the state, to fight the pandemic.
  • No preparation by the states: The state did too little in the months it got before the pandemic reached India for expanding greatly its health infrastructure for testing and treatment.
  • This includes planning operations for food and work; security for the poor; for safe transportation of the poor to their homes; and for special protection for the aged, the disabled, children without care and the destitute.

What must be done?

  • 25 day’s minimum wage: For two months, every household in the informal economy, rural and urban, should be given the equivalent of 25 days’ minimum wages a month until the lockdown continues, and for two months beyond this.
  • Pensions must be doubled and home-delivered in cash.
  • There should be free water tankers supplying water in slum shanties throughout the working days.
  • Double the PDS entitlement: Governments must double PDS entitlements, which includes protein-rich pulses, and distribute these free at doorsteps.
  • Provide cooked and packed food: In addition, for homeless children and adults, and single migrants, it is urgent to supply cooked food to all who seek it, and to deliver packed food to the aged and the disabled in their homes using the services of community youth volunteers.
  • Ensure prisons are safe: To ensure jails are safer, all prison undertrial prisoners, except those charged with the gravest crimes, should be released.
  • Likewise, all those convicted for petty crimes.
  • All residents of beggars’ homes, women’s rescue centres and detention centres should be freed forthwith.

Way forward

  • Commit 3% of GDP on health: India must immediately commit 3% of its GDP for public spending on health services, with the focus on free and universal primary and secondary health care.
  • Nationalise private healthcare: Since the need is immediate, authorities should follow the example of Spain and New Zealand and nationalise private health care.
  • An ordinance should be passed immediately that no patient should be turned away or charged in any private hospital for diagnosis or treatment of symptoms which could be of COVID-19.


  • While one part of the population enjoys work and nutritional security, health insurance and housing of globally acceptable standards, others survive at the edge of unprotected and uncertain work, abysmal housing without clean water and sanitation, and no assured public health care.
  • Can we resolve to correct this in post-COVID India?
  • Can we at least now make the country more kind, just and equal?


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