Covid-19 control and prevention initiatives should address the well-being of marginalised populations

Dr. Rajan SamuelWednesday, July 21, 2021, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 has proven to be a grave humanitarian crisis. The social and economic impact of the pandemic have been disastrous. It has led to global economies slipping into recession and large sections of populations being adversely affected by loss of jobs and livelihoods. Though dealing with the challenges of Covid-19 has been an enormous task for all countries, the impact on emerging and developing economies has been particularly severe. It was estimated by the World Bank that extreme global poverty was expected to rise for the first time in 20 years in 2020 because of the disruption caused by Covid-19 pandemic and other forces such as conflicts and climate change. The global institution anticipated that the pandemic could push around 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty with the figure expected to increase to an astounding 150 million in 2021. Eight out of 10  ‘new poor’ will be from middle-income countries.

The Covid-19 pandemic also exacerbated social and economic disparity especially in developing countries like India. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 400 million workers in India or 90 per cent of the total workforce of the country are engaged in the unorganized sector of the economy. This group consists of vulnerable populations such as migrant labourers, daily wage earners and sanitation workers who do not earn a fixed income and do not have access to economic and social safety nets. These populations were relegated to the ‘new poor’ category of the social and economic spectrum after the first wave of coronavirus. The deadly second wave has widowed thousands of women in India and given rise to new challenges. These grieving women are struggling for survival after losing their partner and in most cases the only earning member of the family.

Government policy programmes and regulatory interventions need to focus on jump-starting economic activity in the country, expediting relief and rehabilitation measures for populations belonging to the ‘new poor’ category. Over the years, the government has initiated social protection programmes and public welfare schemes to alleviate poverty and bolster the living standards of low-income populations. The outbreak of Covid-19 has highlighted the need to make social protection programmes increasingly resilient.

Particular emphasis needs to be placed on widening the scale of such programmes and enhancing its outreach to empower low-income populations and build resilience among marginalized communities at the bottom of the social and economic spectrum.  Future social protection and public welfare initiatives will need to be efficient and effective in accurately assessing and addressing the impacts of man-made and natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and pandemics. We need to take into account that a one-size-fits-all social protection policy is unlikely to yield the desired effect in a country like India with diverse population demographics and a broad geographical expanse. Social protection interventions will need to be flexible and innovative to address contextual issues. The onus will have to be on redressing the grievances of varied population groups and categories at the lower end of the economic pyramid by taking into account their specific needs and circumstances. Policymakers and concerned stakeholders will need to ensure that social protection programmes and public welfare measures are not a short-term, quick-fix solution but a long-term panacea aimed at creating an inclusive ecosystem to bring vulnerable populations within the social and economic mainstream.

To improve the social and psychological well-being of poor populations and their families in the country, direct cash transfers should be provided to them.  It will help in mitigating the adverse impact of lockdowns imposed by the state governments in the country and help them deal effectively with shocks and stresses. Availability of cash at their disposal will spur demand for essential commodities among vulnerable communities and jumpstart the consumption cycle among such households. The government should also focus on kick-starting economic activities at the earliest and create a conducive environment for engaging low-income populations in productive activities and enterprises to boost their income earning capacities.    

The Narendra Modi led-government launched the world’s largest vaccination drive in early January 2021 to combat the spread and transmission of Covid-19. Though the drive has been largely effective in inoculating large parts of the populations particularly in urban areas, vulnerable populations in urban and rural areas have remained outside the gambit of the vaccination campaign. This has highlighted the stark inequity in the country’s Covid-19 vaccination drive. This gap between rich and poor and urban and rural India will need to be addressed by policymakers on a priority basis. To begin with, economically weaker sections of the community should be administered vaccine doses free of cost in Government-run Covid-19 care centres and private healthcare facilities. Special Covid-19 immunization camps should be organised for vulnerable communities in areas where they reside in large numbers and they should be made aware of the long-term benefits of the vaccines through awareness campaigns. Vaccinated families can be incentivized either in cash through cash transfer or in-kind through a public distribution system to encourage people to get vaccinated.

India’s immunisation policy on polio eradicated the lethal disease and a large part of credit goes to the door-to-door coverage done by community health workers at the grassroots. The Government of India has the infrastructure and resources available in the form of Public Health Centres and ASHA workers. Investing in their empowerment will go a long way in strengthening our healthcare infrastructure and insulating the families at the bottom of the pyramid in the wake of Covid-19. Vaccine equity and access for all populations needs to become a policy imperative to deliver on the vision of healthcare for all and exclusion for none.  

As the second wave of Covid-19 ebbs and we foresee the anticipated emergence of the third wave, the onus should be on ensuring equitable access to healthcare resources for marginalised populations and their families. It is important that the fight against Covid-19 treats each citizen of the country, irrespective of his/her social and economic status, with fairness and dignity. Addressing the health concerns of people at the bottom of the pyramid should form a core part of India’s Covid-19 control and prevention initiatives.

(Author is Managing Director of Habitat for Humanity India)