Pandemics & Informal Work in Developing Countries

With the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, proactive social distancing is finally kicking in. Public gatherings are being discouraged and immediate travel bans from countries with higher rates of infections are containing further spread. Meanwhile, increased hoarding of facemasks, hand-sanitizers, toilet paper, and soap are adding to and increasing public concern.

For organizations and economies that have and can afford to implement flexible working hours, canceling non-essential air travel, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer are effective ways of pre-emptively dealing with the looming threat of COVID-19. For the first time in 34 years, Austin will not be hosting its annual South by Southwest festival, costing the city approximately $355 million in lost revenue. Not restricted to cities, international events too are being postponed.  Formula One has said that its upcoming Grand Prix in Bahrain will be closed to spectators, while the Chinese Grand Prix, which had been scheduled for April, was postponed. Universities too have moved classes online, allowing students to finish the remaining semester remotely.

Preemptive action and social distancing are key to containing spread and limiting future infections. But what about developing countries that have inadequate health infrastructure? What about countless informal workers in those economies for whom social distancing translates to the loss of livelihood? In the absence of social safety nets, what happens to informal workers who do not have the luxury of working from home?

COVID-19 in India

With its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Bangalore, India is officially on the list to become a possible hot spot for transmissions and future infections. Interestingly, Bangalore is currently reporting several active cases of cholera, after leakages were reported in the municipality’s sewage and drinking water pipes. With an already strained public health system, and private health care unaffordable for the large majority, lack of social safety nets coupled with a larger informal workforce is going to be particularly problematic hurdles to overcome.

More than 2 billion people (about 61% of the global workforce) are engaged in the informal economy; this represents 88% of total employment in India. Informal work is also the norm, as high as 95% of the Indian economy is characterized by informal work. The diverse nature of informal work, such as construction, street vending, domestic work, waste picking, home-based work (producing garments, handicrafts or food), is characterized and based on social interaction and networks.

The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is going to cause considerable strain for the majority of informal workers who are unable to use savings or other forms of protection to compensate for their loss of income. Especially for female-headed households or single women with families, the added burden of loss of income will be devastating. They must continue to find work, risking their health, in order to care for their families, as informal work is devoid of paid maternity leave.

In such dire circumstances, what options do state governments have to protect vulnerable citizens? India has invoked Section 2 of the Epidemic Disease Act, which makes it easier to implement executive decisions during a global health scare. While decisions related to healthcare still lie with respective state governments, by invoking Section 2 of the Epidemic Diseases Act, advisories and directions of Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare can be enforced across the country. In Jammu and Kashmir, a state which has already faced internet shutdowns since August 2018, is closing public and private educational until 31st March. In the capital of New Delhi, similar measures of closing public spaces including theatres, restaurants and other public spaces are being rolled out gradually. However, the state doing the most to combat the spread in Kerala, a state in southern India, which is stepping up social distancing for those currently infected or at high risk.

Kerala’s Response

With the number of COVID-19 cases increasing as migrant workers return from the Gulf and other areas impacted by the coronavirus, close to 5,000 people are under observation in the state. With 19 confirmed cases, Kerala is employing all strategies at hand to keep the situation under control including shutting down of schools, imposing travel bans and airport screenings coupled with a system of regular checks. Additionally, for existing patients, the administration in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala is delivering daily essentials to the patients and their families with the assistance of local panchayats. Joseph Kuriakose, the President of Ranni Pazhavangadi panchayat (village council), said that they have started delivering groceries and other essentials to 34 families. “We realized that people were stepping out to buy food, water, and other essentials. So, we have made arrangements to ensure they are supplied with these essentials”.

The Kerala State Civil Supplies is the execution wing responsible for the supplies under the Department of Food and Civil Supplies. The Collectorate is also taking active measures to ensure minimal interaction of these patients with the outside world to restrict further spread. Other than setting up a 24-hour control room, Kerala Government is also trying to improve the quality and availability of “broadband internet as several people are opting for work from the home”.

While such measures are commendable and being taken in a timely manner, their impacts or inefficiency will only be known after a while, once the number of cases peak and health infrastructure has a better handle on coping things. Kerala is also the exception in its treatment of the COVID-19 and not the norm. Other states in India have either not envisioned such health support systems or are oblivious of the need to implement them and have been slow to respond. Kerala’s efforts are commendable but given limited funds, but in the face of budget constraints, the longevity or the sustainability of such steps remains unknown. With the advent of an increase in the number of cases, how much will the state government be able to implement social distancing? It is also not known if social distancing can be applied to welfare programs like MNREGA, existing local markets or any other forms of informal work. In the absence of income guarantees, the urban and rural poor will bear the brunt of the pandemic.

Anushree Deb is a graduate student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and is pursuing a Masters in Global Policy Studies. Over the summer, Anushree interned at The Asian Development Bank HQ in Manila and worked on increasing urban resilience through low-income housing in Bangladesh & Philippines. Prior to LBJ, Anushree was a Senior Associate at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, India where she worked on issues of urban development & governance, land use planning and violations, water & sanitation networks as well as urban heritage conservation. She has a masters in urban policy & governance from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a bachelors in history from Delhi University.

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