Certain activities, considering the essentiality of their nature, were exempted from being stopped in the nationwide lockdown announced in the third week of March to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 infection. Broadly, services and activities which were kept functional were: defence, law and order machinery, fire and emergency services, banking, disaster management, prisons, municipal bodies-only staff required for essential services like sanitation, water supply etc., medical establishments and their manufacturing and distribution units, grocery and ration shops, media and IT enabled services. Interestingly, the list of these essential activities and services kept changing during different phases of the lockdown. This reflected the flexible and ever changing nature of the ‘essential’.
While many establishments were allowed to remain open with limited staff during the lockdowns others were instructed to work from homes. There are people who work from home and there are those who work at homes. It is interesting how some worked from home while those who used to work at homes had to sit at home and continue to do so as the housing societies are not allowing them to return to work. Those who worked from homes had an official employment contract while the latter didn’t had one. Their contracts could not be traced. This difference in the nature of these employments was essential and this division became quite visible.
A few days back, a friend shared screenshot of a WhatsApp message sent by his housing society secretary on the society group. The message was in two parts. First part of the message warned the residents against throwing solid garbage in sewer lines which can potentially block them. The secretary sounded panicked as the kitchen waste line of the ‘O’ block was already chocked and creating a stink. The secretary also expressed his helplessness to resolve the same given the absent of those who would do it in ‘normal’ times. The second part of the message was to inform the residents of clearing their dues with their domestic helps, car cleaners, gardeners, drivers and cooks. A special slot, Sunday, 9: 00 a.m., was suggested for this to avoid crowding as these workers had to wait for long hours at the society’s gate. May be the day and time was chosen to make it convenient to their employers who worked from homes. The reason these workers had to wait for long hours at the gate given their employers were at home remained unknown.
The media was full of reports of pay cuts for the domestic and other monthly workers who could not report to work given the lockdown. Basis for these cuts were passionately debated on the society WhatsApp groups. The most common argument being- “why ask for payments when they didn’t work in this duration?” Some sounded very angry as they had to manage chores on their own in their absence. Was there an intentional overlooking of the fact that these workers were not voluntarily absent from work but forced to do so to follow public safety guidelines, it is difficult to say? While some of the restrictions are ‘unlocking’, the irony is that the domestic workers are being stopped from entering the housing societies. Other than that, they are also being stopped from using the lifts (Indian Express) if they report to work. It is not only discriminatory but also an attempt to ensure services and safety by their employers at the cost of added burden of climbing multiple storeys by these workers. This shows how safety is a class privilege and treated as an entitlement by some.
Who are Essentials?
Those who are deployed to deliver essential services are known by terms such as- Essential Workers, the First Responders or Front Line workers. They are also known as care workers. In the context of COVID-19 they are celebrated as Corona Warriors or Frontal Warriors.
In Pune, five sanitation workers including one hospital sanitation worker, all women, died on May 24 due to COVID-19 infection. A number of them across the city have been infected due to the absence of proper protective gears. When the permanent staff of the Corporation is insured with Rs 1 crore the contractual workers are not insured at all (Hindustan Times, May 24). Just a day after this, the news of Heera Lal, a senior sanitation supervisor who handled sanitary and disinfectant operations at the AIIMS, New Delhi, succumbing to the virus came in.
Almost 6000 contractual sanitation workers had demanded basic protections gears from the city administration on March 16, 2020 in Pune. These workers had alleged that neither the authorities nor the contractor are providing them the essential protection gears. These workers were forced to pick up used masks and other contagious garbage from housing societies and hospitals, reported Pune Mirror, March 17. In a meeting with the municipal commissioner they had declared that they will not leave homes and “work from home” if the situation doesn’t change. All of them are essential workers working without the essentials. If the services are essential how come those who provide them and ensure their delivery are casual, contractual and temporary?
A few of the contradictions and questions in the times of COVID-19 crisis are following:
If roof over one’s head is essential then why there are homeless people while there are people-less homes? Why is rent for landlords is essential (unless it is the only source of survival) when tenants are out of livelihoods?
If physical distancing is essential within homes, how does that happen when 60 per cent of the country’s population does not have a room available to them (MoSP, 2019).
If ration, grocery, fruits and vegetables are essential for people in the cities how come procurement and remunerative prices for the same for farmers and producers are not essential or the marketing process is no less than an ordeal?
If internet and IT services are essential and critical for ensuring well-being, being in touch with family and loved ones, earning livelihoods, skills, education and learning, why not access to them for all is essential? The digital divide resulting from an overwhelming majority not having sustained access to devices and mediums enabling the digital learning will further the knowledge divide not only just presently but for the coming generations.
If food is essential then why the cooking is not an essential skill or a shared responsibility among the family members of all genders in a household?
If immunity is essential to fight and survive the virus why isn’t there adequate nutrition available to all?
If safety is essential then why the cases of domestic violence against women and child abuse are on rise during the lockdown?
If hygiene and cleanliness is essential how come only certain sections of the society are condemned to do it and others don't know in their absence how to segregate the wet and dry waste?
If washing hands with soap is essential to kill the virus why the provision of piped water within homes is available to only 35 per cent of all households in the country (MoSP, 2019)?
If proper health care is essential then why access to the same is expensive, profit oriented and not public and affordable?
If the scientific approach is essential why are superstitious and obscurantist ideas are flooding the WhatsApp groups, social and other media platforms?
If unity and solidarity is essential how come the fight against the virus becomes against a region, ethnicity, religion and class?
If care and compassion are essential why there is social ‘distancing’, apathy and stigma attached to those who need social support and care?
When the survival is essential why there is indifference and apathy for ‘others’ lives.
The question is how our conditions require one thing but our structures and processes produce something contrasting and opposite. These contradictions define our times.
Labour is not only the essential but the sustainer of the pre, during and post-corona society. If we have to restore ‘normalcy’ in a post-COVID-19 era then we can not return to what was ‘normal’. The new has to be based on the execution and realisation of the principals of humanity, egalitarianism and justice for all. A society which ensures visibility, acknowledgement, and dignity to labour and give it its long due. When the essentials are doing the essential it is the job of the society and the state to do the essential if not more for them.
- Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSP) (2019): “Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Housing Condition: NSS 76th Round, July 2018–December 2018,” Government of India, New Delhi.
- Prof. Shamsher Singh, Assistant Professor - Sociology
The author would like to acknowledge discussion with Professor Sabah Siddiqui on the issues discussed.