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Older people and the pandemic: India’s forgotten generation

Written by Penny Vera-Sanso, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies and Social Anthropology at Birkbeck, University of London

July 6, 2020


India is fast becoming a global hotspot for Covid-19. As of late June, the country had reached 456,000 cases. Only Russia, Brazil and the USA have reported more Covid-19 infections than India.

Soldiers have been called in to manage healthcare centres in the capital after a spike in positive tests. 20,000 extra beds will be made available in army-run temporary facilities. The authorities are scrambling to tackle the spread of the virus, but for many Indians, it isn’t the virus itself that will become the biggest killer.


Dr Penny Vera-Sanso spoke at LIDC’s event ‘Covid-19: Are we leaving the poorest and most vulnerable behind?’. A recording of this event is now available.


Informal settlements and ‘the flying classes’

The indirect effects of the pandemic are likely to overshadow the suffering caused by the virus. They could be felt long before the number of cases accelerated in India.


The country went into lockdown already on 25 March, when it only had 519 cases. Tourists were quarantined, international commercial flights were banned and – importantly –  train services suspended. 90 per cent of workers have no rights and most are employed on daily or piece rates, the lockdown is are inevitably felt the hardest by those who were already living hand to mouth.


India is a segregated society: Segregated by class, caste and labour conditions. People living in informal settlements and those from lower casts have long been stigmatized as ‘sources of contamination’. This stigmatization caused the middle classes to cut off contact with the people who were the least likely to carry the virus. During lockdown, there are few points of contact between them and people living in informal settlements, although it was the ‘Flying Classes’ that first brought the disease to India from Wuhan, the Middle East or Italy.


The establishment of ‘Containment Zones’ for buildings or areas with confirmed cases is another measure that hits the most vulnerable the hardest. Testing and tracing take place in the containment zones, and no one can leave their homes. Even groceries are delivered through government channels. In Chennai alone, there are currently 369 containment zones.


Long lockdown means fewer jobs

Covid-19 has brought the economic lives of most urban poor to a standstill. Research in five informal settlements in Chennai in 2007-10 – including the 2008 international banking crisis that translated into a significant economic slowdown in Chennai – is instructive. Chennai’s labour market is segregated by age, gender and education. It has until now provided considerable economic space for older people. They occupied areas of the economy that younger people had vacated for higher status, easier conditions and better pay.


Young people from low-income households tend to do work that is seen as modern: In shopping malls, as taxi drivers, on large building sites and in factories, as well as doing domestic work. Women who are middle-aged or older tend to be self-employed. They are hawking goods and trading as pavement vendors in street markets. Middle-aged men drive auto-rickshaws while older men work as security guards, watchmen and cycle-rickshaw pullers. Building sites, shopping malls and factories have shut, while the ‘flying classes’ have let domestic workers go. People in informal settelemts have fewer and fewer economic opportunities.


No food, no healthcare, no money

Starvation, uncared for sickness and deepening vulnerability are currently the greatest dangers for the urban poor. People in Chennai’s informal settlements cut food expenditures to the bone during downturns. They commonly eat no more than one small carbohydrate meal a day and fermented rice water, which people resort to when they have nothing else. Water shortages and soaring temperatures contribute to dehydration and heatstroke. Free health services are too far away for most people and few can afford private healthcare. Residents in informal settlements will have lost assets, being unable to redeem pawned items, and will be working their way through the assets that remain. They can’t pay or collect rents, which creates a range of problems for renters and for people (particularly older single women) who sub-divide their dwelling for an income.


Most importantly, the family, neighbour and kin networks that people depend on to reduce poverty risks will be unable to help. Although the Government has provided a one-off lockdown payment, the amount of Rs1,000 – just over 10 pounds – is so low that it only counts as gestural politics. These conditions will drive people back into finding work, which will contribute to spreading the virus in the informal settlements.


Longer hours for lower pay

Loss of health, assets, jobs, housing and the disruption of social and economic networks are the immediate impacts of lockdown. There will also be mid- and long-term impacts. At best, the mid-term impacts will be relatively short-lived. Labour force participation will increase for everyone in low-income settlements – but not the ‘pull your socks up’ participation that neo-liberal economists like to think will raise household incomes. People of all ages and abilities will be forced into the labour market. Older people will have no choice but to work longer hours, in worse conditions and for less pay.


Weaker social networks

Family and kin networks will develop holes due to underlying health conditions, deepening nutritional deficits and untreated morbidity under Covid-19.

Tamil Nadu has a comparatively low fertility rate. Direct and indirect consequences of Covid-19 will sharpen the long-term risks of reducing the size of family networks. Older people with limited family support, with no or inadequate pensions, or who have lost work are particularly vulnerabe. These older adults will find their ability to cater for themselves or to rely on others significantly constrained. They could well become even more tied into impoverished family networks that increasingly depend on older people’s inputs.


The social distribution of risk

There is no getting away from the need for a realistic income for all people over the age of 60 and a pension programme that guarantees it. How many will die from Covid-19 – directly or indirectly – in Chennai’s informal settlements remain to be seen. It will be political will that determines whether these deaths and the pandemic’s long-term impacts on people living in low-income settlements will ever be recognized for what they are: the consequence of how India chooses to distribute its risks across society.

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