"The COVID-19 pandemic is deepening the existing ruthless and exclusionary practices in India’s big cities, where elites treat the poor as ‘disposable citizens’ clearly evident when we see thousands of poor migrants being stranded in the middle of nowhere, whereas the upper-class people continue to enjoy all the comforts of home." This comment comes from a blog from the Indian partner in the Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities project led by the University of Glasgow, and for which I chair the Research Advisory Board. The authors are Dr. Debolina Kundu, Dr. Tania Debnath, Biswajit Kar and Rakesh Mishra from the National Institute of Urban Affairs, India.
The sudden announcement of a lockdown in India became a global news story as people working in the cities tried desparately to return to their villages. Dr. Kundu and her colleagues describe people "being packed on to unbelievably crowded buses and trains", a sure way to spread the virus. Then inadequate screening has increased the risk of an urban to rural transmission of the disease.
With half of the population of Mumbai and a third of that of Kolkuta living in slums, the risk of contagion is very high. As I pointed out in my own blog on CV19 and cities, and as this blog from India confirms, severe overcrowding and inadequate sanitation leaves those living in these poor neighbourhoods extremely vulnerable. What is particularly valuable in the blog from Dr.Kundu and her co-researchers is the data on health provision in India. They report that US$1.3billion was allocated to the health sector in a recent bailout budget. It sounds a lot but equates to only about US$1.50 per person in India. There are 70,000 intensive care beds and 40,000 ventilators to serve a population of 1.3 billion people. For comparison, NHS England had a little over 4,100 adult critical care beds in February 2020, and about 5000 ventilators. Of course, it wouldn't be India without the railways being involved, and Indian Railways have donated 20,000 railway carriages to create emergency isolation beds for CV19 patients.
The fear expressed in the blog is that "the hunger-related death toll could surpass virus-induced death". This is because so many people with low incomes now face having no incomes. "Thousands of urban poor also have seen their incomes plummet. Although essential services remain open, the shutdown of the construction and manufacturing sector and the lack of liquid cash means many of the urban poor, like rickshaw drivers, petty traders and daily wage labourers, will see their daily income vanish."
India is a country where inequalities run deep and are most visible in the cities. The way cities in India and elsewhere have been developed and planned has laid the ground for a pandemic such as this to impact most severely on those who were already the most disadvantaged.