First published by the Telegraph on 22 April 2020
In India and elsewhere, a state of lockdown has put millions at risk of starvation
The Covid-19 pandemic is sometimes described as a "great leveller", and in one way this is true – no one is immune. But we do not stand equal before it.
In the slums of India, favelas of Brazil and townships of Africa, questions such as “flattening the curve” or how many ventilators exist in the national health system are not at the top of anyone’s mind. People are not even protesting the expense of soap or their lack of access to running water. Why? Because lockdown is producing a threat of famine that annihilates the threat of the virus.
On March 25, India stalled abruptly into lockdown – the world’s largest, affecting 1.353 billion people, which has now been extended to May 3. Tens of millions of jobs have vanished, along with the prospect of food and shelter for a large segment of the population.
The devastation among India’s internal migrants is harrowing. Following the instructions of their employers, migrant workers are draining out of India’s megacities and into their regions of origin. Transport systems have been suspended, forcing many to walk hundreds of kilometers on foot. Some states are turning migrants back to prevent the spread of infection, leaving them stranded at border posts.
When the lockdown was first announced, the Indian Government promised to provide food to the poor and jobless. But the magnitude of this issue has left millions without such support. In any case, India’s existing ration card system does not extend to migrant households.
Meanwhile, employers are offering rations only to their permanent workers or workers with whom they have binding contracts. Temporary migrant workers, who constitute a large proportion of the Indian workforce, are generally excluded from ration programs. Amidst lockdown and travel bans, this leaves vast swathes of the population hungry, and beyond the reach of the international aid community.
The unthinkable task of feeding the Indian people has therefore fallen to frontline groups – the same NGOs that struggle to win support from the international aid community, and are denied a seat at the human rights policy table. Despite daunting, even overwhelming, scarcity, many frontline NGOs are responding effectively and nimbly, staying close to the situation on the ground and maintaining the trust of affected communities.
Many frontline groups have leveraged their ties to local government authorities to deliver vital food parcels or establish food banks
What's interesting is how these dedicated groups have taken the fight to Covid-19. Many frontline groups have, for example, leveraged their ties to local government authorities, negotiating concessions to deliver vital food parcels or establish food banks, sometimes with the assistance of the police.
Others have made agreements with local grocery stores to implement food stamp systems, and have begun issuing them to vulnerable families. A handful have gone as far as to create makeshift mask factories and to distribute the masks while informing communities about the virus.
This pandemic has upped the stakes for anti-slavery work, since poverty and famine provide a hotbed for exploitation. But in India and across the globe, as existing chasms between “haves” and “have-nots” deepen, frontline groups are shining a light, and countering overwhelming scarcity with resilience. For anyone wanting to help people suffering under these awful conditions, these groups are your hands, feet and heart. There is no other way to reach the needy.
Covid-19 is teaching us many hard lessons. One is the irreplaceable value of smaller, frontline organisations, at a time when the international aid sector is struggling to adapt. When rebuilding societies from the wreckage of this virus, we should look to these groups for guidance. Tove van Lennep, Manager of Frontline Advocacy