COVID crisis in India pushing vulnerable people further into poverty

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In Ghaziabad, a city in northern India, people wait in line to give swab samples for Covid-19 testing on April 27. Sakib Ali / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Oxfam staff in India explain what life is like in the middle of the public health crisis and what Oxfam is doing to assist the most vulnerable people in the worst-hit areas.

The people of India are struggling to endure a deadly spike in COVID-19 infections. The situation in New Delhi, one of the largest cities, is “grim,” says Alivelu Ramisetty, Oxfam America’s director of gender justice and inclusion, who shares what she has observed while working out of the capital city. “Amid unending ambulance sirens [and] scenes of people rushing to hospitals, patients are gasping to breathe waiting for their turn outside emergency units,” she says. “We have hundreds of thousands of people who can’t find a bed, oxygen, or ventilators in the overflowing hospitals. Others are dying at home in isolation, or on the roads in vehicles.”

The India coronavirus crisis amounts to “a complete collapse of the healthcare system,” Oxfam India said in a statement, pointing out that the effects of the latest and most severe surge in coronavirus will have an even worse impact on the poorest people in India, who are “once again being pushed further into uncertainty and abject poverty. In this wave not only are they bearing the brunt of a failed healthcare system, they are also going to face massive economic strain.”

“I do not know of a single family that has not seen at least one of its members infected,” says Pankaj Anand, Oxfam India program director. This includes Oxfam’s staff. Many are working long hours while also helping sick family members, and mourning the loss of colleague Ignatius Xess who passed away early this week.

People at risk

Among the most vulnerable are migrant workers and those without regular jobs and unemployment benefits. Many of them, as well as the more than four million homeless people in India, frequently do not have a reliable source of clean water, proper sanitation facilities, or the soap, sanitizers, and face masks they need to protect themselves.

Women in particular are facing greater risks in the pandemic. “Women are working as front-line health workers and care providers, and are facing a higher rate of infection, as much as two or three times higher,” Ramisetty says. “The pandemic has also affected their financial health, especially those working in the informal sector and at small businesses. Their income has taken a hit, while their duties to provide unpaid care to sick family members have increased.”

Lower-caste Dalit people in India, who face routine discrimination, are among the most-at risk people, according to Ramisetty. “Dalit communities are among the people suffering the most in the pandemic due to the pervasiveness of the caste system and poverty,” she says. “They have limited access to health care and any other form of social protection.”

Oxfam assisting hospitals and migrants in India

Oxfam is continuing its urgent mobilization of funds and other resources to provide equipment to government hospitals in five of the worst-hit states of the country, including oxygen tanks, digital thermometers, beds, and other much needed protective equipment such as gloves and masks for front-line health workers. In the same areas, we are providing soap, sanitizer, and protective equipment, food, and cash to the most vulnerable people affected by the crisis. This includes women and girls, elderly and disabled people, transgender people, and others in 17 states.

Oxfam is also advocating for the government of India to assist migrant workers returning to their homes with free COVID-19 tests, cash, shelter and isolation centers for those needing them, and stepped-up efforts to prevent violence against women.

Internationally, Oxfam is continuing to campaign for a People’s Vaccine: provided free of charge and universally accessible, without the burden of patents that increase the cost beyond the reach of poor countries. After India and South Africa proposed a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization, the US Trade Representative announced she would support their proposal.

“The horrific situation in India is a warning to all of us,” noted Abby Maxman, President of Oxfam America. “If we don’t move urgently to share the vaccine technology and scale up manufacturing so everyone, everywhere can have access to these lifesaving vaccines, we will never get the upper hand on COVID anywhere.”

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