May Day 2021 | COVID-19 Second Wave

Sandeep Chachra

As we mark the second consecutive International Workers Day under COVID-19, we need to recognise how the world has failed its workers.

This year, India is in the grips of a deadly second wave of the pandemic. Each day sets a new record for deaths and infections. While many frontline workers, especially in the health sector, have been justly recognised and celebrated, India’s army of informal workers, who are risking their lives on the frontlines of the crisis, continue to do so with little support or protection.

India’s informal workers are just under six percent of our planet’s population, nearly half a billion people. Most informal workers belong to historically oppressed sections of the caste society, to tribal groups deprived of their age-old custodianship of ecological resources and minorities who face othering.  Informal workers, already battered by lockdowns last year, are struggling in an enfeebled economy.

Some of the informal workers on the frontlines of the pandemic are the burial, cremation and mortuary workers – invisible, but behind the scenes of the horrifying images of mass funeral pyres that have shocked the world.

They include the domestic workers, almost all of them women, who are looking after sick people who cannot find a space in overcrowded hospitals. They are the sanitation workers and rag pickers cleaning up India’s cities. The street vendors who battle curfew and lockdowns to supply essentials to all. They are the workers in the gig economy, home delivering products, food and essentials.

As the salaried and middle classes lock themselves in their homes to tide over the virus, informal workers and those at the bottom end, do not have that luxury.

On International Workers Day, it is just not enough to symbolically celebrate their heroic efforts in battling the pandemic, and cleaning up the death and destruction that this wave of COVID has wreaked.

To those who continue to feed us, clothe us and house us, while building our economies, running our industries, making our cities livable and keeping our planet livable, in return for a life of perpetual precarity, we owe an apology.

All of us who are privileged and depend on the labours of others need to acknowledge this historical debt. Our governments, whose purpose it has been to serve the bulk of our populations, must apologise for the history of wrongs. But we must go beyond apologies – we need to start delivering justice for all.

All frontline workers who are at severe risk of infection should be supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation essentials to protect them from the virus.

This includes health workers, sanitation workers, mortuary, burial and cremation ground workers, rag pickers and cleaners, home care workers and delivery drivers.

Domestic workers and home workers are emerging as caregivers for families suffering from COVID-19 who can’t find beds or treatment in vastly overcrowded hospitals.

Lockdowns, curbs on movements and a lack healthcare access are also putting people, particularly women out of work. In several cities, residents don’t allow domestic workers into their homes, offering no wage compensation in return. During last year’s lockdown, most domestic workers were unable to benefit from state relief packages, leaving them heavily indebted and vulnerable.

As this deadly wave of COVID strikes, we must not forget that most people had just started working again after the first wave wiped out their livelihoods overnight and pushed millions further into poverty and hunger. Now, fearing travel restrictions and disease, many migrant workers are returning once again to their home villages.

While ActionAid Association is providing food and cash support to informal workers through helplines and physical outreach in districts, it’s hard to forget the trauma of last year’s exodus of migrant workers that pushed millions out of work. We must do all we can to prevent this from happening again.

This means ensuring protection from disease through free and universal vaccinations, protective gear equipment, decent wages beyond the bare minimum, compensation for wage losses, sharing of unpaid care work that women are compelled to do.

A welfare system to keep families afloat, children to stay in schools to reduce early marriages and child labour, an end to discrimination at work, and property for landless agriculture workers, are basic necessities that can transform lives. COVID has merely exacerbated these injustices.

While an apology may provide a balm to the wounds of history, justice will lay the foundations of a new social order that is eager to be birthed.

The article is first published by Thomson Reuters Foundation News under the title OPINION: On International Workers Day, an apology to India’s army of informal workers.

About the Author

Sandeep chachra
Sandeep Chachra is the Executive Director of ActionAid Association and Co-Chair of the World Urban Campaign

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