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'I can't sleep worrying about what's going to happen'

By Geetanjali Krishna
April 11, 2020 18:52 IST
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'The COVID-19 pandemic is going to send an unprecedented number of low-income households deep into poverty,' says Geetanjali Krishna.

IMAGE: Archbishop Thumma Bala of Hyderabad distributes food and masks to needy Indians in Hyderabad on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

Last week, I wrote about Kamini, the domestic worker who, like lakhs of people like her, has little to help tide herself and her family over the COVID-19 pandemic.

She lives in a crowded, low-income neighbourhood, shares a toilet with at least 15 other people and has no savings to fall back on.

Even if the coronavirus didn't cripple her, the precautions advised against it definitely could.

When I met her this week, her situation was grimmer than before.

While she's staying at home on full pay, her two children are not.

Her daughter continued to work in a small beauty parlour until Prime Minister Modi announced the 21-day lockdown.

Her son, who works in a shop, has been home for the last few days.

Both have no prospects of earning until the crisis blows over.

Now the three-member household must survive on Kamini's salary alone.

"My son and daughter used to earn about Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 each every month," Kamini said.

"With my salary of about Rs 9,000, we used to live relatively comfortably even though we had meagre savings."

After paying their rent of Rs 7,000, the household used to have enough cash left to eat chicken once a week.

All that has changed now.

"My worry is that if one of us falls ill, we may not be able to manage," said she.

Fearing exactly this, many of her neighbours returned to their villages.

Kamini and her children had planned on doing the same, but couldn't after the city went into lockdown.

"I wish we'd gone sooner," she said.

"Life in the village is much more forgiving."

What were her fallback options, I asked.

She replied that she had about Rs 1 lakh in her bank which she could tap into.

In case of an emergency, she said, there was a private moneylender that she could go to.

However, at this stage, taking loans that she and her children may not be able to repay, was a risky idea.

Her employers would probably advance her some money if she asked them, she said.

"But with only my income to support the household, it won't be easy to repay them."

Since hers was not a BPL household, they probably would not be able to access government relief either.

"I can't sleep at night worrying about what's going to happen to us..." she said.

Kamini's fears are not hers alone.

I reckon that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to send an unprecedented number of low-income households deep into poverty.

In many ways, households previously identified as Below Poverty Line or BPL are going to be better off than Kamini and her family.

At least they will be able to access everything from rations to free health care.

For people like Kamini, however, who are swiftly sliding down that slippery slope towards poverty even as I write this column, something needs to be done.

Perhaps the need of the hour is for the government to extend the public distribution system to include her, and others like her.

Perhaps it needs to give her access to subsidised health care or a higher insurance cover.

In these times corona, perhaps what we need from the government is a hefty dose of 'karuna' (compassion) economics; else the fallout of the pandemic will be even harsher than expected.

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Geetanjali Krishna
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