India's government discusses end of lockdown as millions struggle to find food

With the death toll from Covid-19 in India climbing steadily to over 2300 cases and at least 56 dead, discussions within the government have begun on a way forward following the end of the 21-day lockdown period, as well as an exit strategy once the pandemic subsides. 

Taking a cue from Italy where citizens have lit candles to beat the social isolation imposed by the country's coronavirus lockdown, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called on Indian's to do the same for nine minutes on 5 April to mark the fight against the disease.

A symbolic gesture to fight the virus

“On this Sunday, April 5, we will challenge the darkness of coronavirus together. At 9 pm, turn off all the lights in your houses and light a ‘diya’(lamp), candle, torch or flashlight for 9 minutes at your doors, or balcony," Modi said in a video message this Friday.

This is the second collective gesture that Modi has called for.

The announcement was met with ridicule and anger on social media as many questioned the utility of this gesture especially when ordinary people continue to have a tough time especially when it was bereft of concrete economic measures.

“What we expected was a generous livelihood support package for the poor, including for those categories of poor who were totally ignored,” said former finance minister P Chidambaram.

Since the lockdown was imposed on 24 March, millions of Indians, especially migrant workers have been struggling to access food, as jobs have evaporated.

In the effort to flatten the pandemic’s spike, the lockdown has left tens of millions of migrant workers unemployed. Many come from rural areas but live most of the year in India's megacities, serving as day laborers, construction workers or domestic workers.

“My family has been struggling to get a meal every day. We cannot go back to our villages as there is a curfew. It will be a miracle if we survive this period,” Pratap Kumar, a construction worker told RFI.

“If the virus does not kill us, hunger certainly will. What the government has promised us in terms of remuneration has not reached us,” said Sanjay Deep, an agricultural worker.

According to the government’s economic survey, internal migrants make up about 20% of the workforce and contribute an estimated 10% of India's economic output.

Under pressure from the emergency, the government finally announced a $23 billion welfare scheme for the poor that included doubling the amount of free food rations under an existing national program, $10 to tide over senior citizens, and raising wages by $0.27 per day for those working under the government's rural employment scheme.

Ramping up medical infrastructure

Questions have also been raised about the preparedness of India’s health system to face the rising number of cases. 

A shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) that health care workers need when dealing with something as infectious as the Covid-19, is a major concern.

“We need more ventilators, exclusive infection zones, PPEs and more nursing staff if the pandemic surges. The government is helping out but it has to be done on a war footing,” said Pratap Kumar, a leading surgeon in Delhi.

Efforts are also being deployed to track down coronavirus clusters across the country. One aims to identify, test and quarantine anyone who attended a gathering of almost 4,000 people belonging to a Muslim missionary group in the capital late last month. States have traced more than 300 positive cases back to the week-long event.

With a lockdown in place, IT firms, corporates and white-collar workers are grappling with a new normal - of working from home for a sustained period of time.

“We have a robust telecom infrastructure in place to support people in cities and towns working out of homes. The challenges faced due to the virus outbreak are being addressed,” Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India told RFI.

Modi’s government is now thinking of ways on how to lift the lockdown and a strategy to move forward. What forms these measures would assume depends on a variety of factors, the key being the nature of the spread of the virus.

One opinion currently within the government seems to be that while it may not be possible to reach a zero-new-case situation by 14 April, the best option would be to focus on specific “pockets” to contain the contagion.