Debt and COVID stalks workers of Rural Tamilnadu

  • June 3, 2021

The pandemic and the lockdown are pushing the rural working class in Tamilnadu in debt traps as well as death traps. There is a massive amount of medication and vaccine hesitancy and lack of awareness that the governments are failing to address. An article originally published in TNLabour illustrates the condition and discusses the possibility of the government working more closely with the workers unions as a must preventive measure to the third wave of coronavirus infection.


As I complete my long discussion with Muthukumar, he politely asks me if he can ask me a question. “Please do” I say and he asks “sir, I had mortgaged my wife’s jewels with a private lender only recently, now I have no job, will they give me any waiver for I cannot pay the dues?”. His question comes from the deep-seated fear that he will not be able to repay the loan if the interest mounts. His monthly due is Rs 14000 on a Rs 1.2 Lakh loan. He and his wife worked at a textile mill in Tirupur. For 12 hours of works they were paid Rs 500, along with a house for staying. Even without the lockdown, it would have been a miracle if he had managed to pay his debt on time. But with the lockdown, they lost their income. His voice reveals the anxieties of many a labouring family in Rural Tamilnadu.


Another year of wasted labour

“This time, my owner decided to send us all back as soon as the lock down was announced in April. said Muthukumar. When asked about the lock down last year, he said “last time, our owner had retained us for some time. he gave us rations and even paid for the accommodation. But soon he could not manage and had to send us back. So this time he sent us as soon as lock down was announced. It has been a month without work.” He and his wife were last paid for April. He had also taken a week’s pay as advance. They don’t get paid for lockdown period. “If we work, we get paid, even in normal days we don’t get paid when there is no work. It’s daily wage.”


Muthukumar has returned to Vadipatti near Madurai. His family lives in their ancestral home with his mother and his brother’s family. His brother, working in a car paint shop in Coimbatore is also back as he also was laid off. “All our money was spent over the month. For the next month, we have to depend on our mother’s savings. She earned money in ‘100 days work scheme’ (NREGS). We have to live of that.” Even the NREGS work has been stopped since the 2nd wave of COVID broke out.


His story is not unique. All across rural Tamilnadu, many have returned as jobs closed down in the cities. Ponamma, lives near Alagar Koil in Madurai District, her family used to work in a Brick Kiln in Coimbatore. They were asked to leave three months back, as work was limited. Now she and her family are facing acute financial distress, as they cannot find work even in their native. “We have mortgaged all our jewels, we have even mortgaged our house just to survive these few months. If we try to go out to find work, the police stop us and treat us very badly. So my husband and my son don’t venture to find work,” she said. The Rs 2000 from the government has helped her a bit in tiding over a month’s expense, but she has no doubt, if the lock down continues and jobs don’t open up, her family will be in dire condition.


She is also extremely anxious about catching covid. “The local officials have visited us and given us instructions about cleaning our hands and wearing masks. We don’t go out much. If we have fever or cough, we have to go to the hospital (PHC). It is about 1km from here” she said.


Many youths have returned to their native villages with factory closures. Many have lost jobs even in the local as hotels, shops and other services were forced to close down. With the stoppage of work under NREGS, the only available work is agricultural labour. But agricultural work is not available across all districts. While Ilaya Raja, district secretary of CPIML (Lib), said that in Theni district, there was a fair availability of agricultural work, in other places including the delta region, agriculture is not capable of absorbing all the excess workers from non-agricultural sectors. Muthuraku, from Vadipatti, raises cows with her sons. she said that most of the lands have been sold and the topsoil removed for other uses. Now even the rock is being quarried for M sand and other uses. “Forget agriculture, we find it tough to graze our cattle in these quarried lands.”


In the Thanjavur delta regions agriculture is mechanised enough that it does not absorb a lot of labour. Many youths have travel far, even to Kerala and other states to find jobs. With borders closed, and cities shutting down, many have returned.


Like last year, this year too will be lost in paying back the dues, debt and interests they incur managing these lockdown days. The relief offered by the State, though welcome, will not compensate for the costs of living. As many had commented in earlier interviews too, the Lock Down will bring greater ruin to families than COVID.


Women workers protesting in Madurai against loan sharks during the first lockdown in 2020


Carelessness and Fear fuel the second Wave

Unfortunately, many are also incurring higher medical costs as the government hospitals have become COVID specialities. People also avoid the PHCs for fear they would be tested. “if it returns positive they will take us and give us injection. We don’t want those medicines” said Mariamma (name changed). She had all the main symptoms of covid including fatigue. But she did not get tested and remained in home isolation. “I took kashayam, steam and nattu marundhu (traditional native medicines), I had fever, but the weakness was very different. I was extremely weak unlike usual fever,” she added.


Private hospitals and the pharmacies have become the primary health care providers. Veera Selvam, a political activist in Srikazhi explained the prevalence of ‘Set Medicine’ given in local shops. “It’s basically pain killers and paracetamol, people just take these medicines if they feel sick. With COVID, people take this and stay home until they feel alright. They don’t test. There is extreme fear of testing and being branded as COVID positive.” He said that while every village in the taluk has covid positive patients, testing is rather poor. While care givers from the General Hospital visit the panchayats to conduct fever camps and testing, many symptomatic people remain home and only those on the streets are tested. “While there is fear about covid and people remain indoors, there is also fear of medicines and so they take hot water, kashayam etc. They only go to hospital when it is very serious. There are a lot of suspect deaths at home, that have gone without notice,” he adds.


“Medical teams go from panchayat to panchayat, there is even some of the local body officials on rounds. But if local panchayat leaders do not support, if they don’t proactively identify suspect patients, the medical teams can’t do much. Where activists get involved, the situation is slightly better. They are even able to organize the COVID kit to be given to patients in home quarantine,” says Veeraselvam. The COVID kit has sanitizing soaps, masks, and basic medicines including vitamins.


While many youths have returned without work, some have invested themselves in helping the community. They have formed local teams to spread awareness about COVID appropriate behaviour, helping families with provisions and even monitoring possible cases and organizing testing. Given that they are from the local community, their ability to access the families and know their needs is much higher than the distant civic administration. We could see a similar phenomenon in Working Class settlements of Perumbakkam in Chennai, where the most effective mechanism to deliver medical care is through local associations.


However, Dhilip – another youth activist near Srikazhi – is having a frustrating experience dealing with friends, family and local community. “People have very little awareness, Comrade,” he said, “They have extreme fear of hospitals and medicines and even vaccinations. For example, in my neighbourhood, a middle-aged person contracted covid. But for nearly 12 days, they had not taken him to hospital or even treated him with allopathic medicines. When his situation deteriorated, he was rushed to the General Hospital by his family. There he died. Now the entire family and even the locals are saying that he was killed because of the injection given at the hospital. His son even assaulted the duty nurse. They refuse to accept that the primary reason for the persons death is delayed care. Now many claim that they kill you in hospital without any rhyme or reason.”


Dhilip himself has recently recovered from COVID and was hospitalised for seven days. This was in the early stages of the 2nd wave, when beds were still available. “I had tested after my friend had turned positive and I had to take him to hospital. When my result came as positive, municipality officials contacted me and took me to the general hospital. I had only mild symptoms but was in observation.”


“It had over 500 patients at the time including some in very serious condition requiring oxygen. But there was only one nurse per general ward. No doctors on duty. One doctor visited in the morning for check-up. In case of emergency there was no one to deal with. The hospital was very understaffed even at that time.” On the other hand he was very appreciative of the sanitary workers at the hospital. “You see in the COVID wards, there are no attenders. So all help has to be provided by the staff, but the nurses cannot cater to the non-medical needs of the patients. So it all fell on the cleaners and support staff. Some of the patients could not climb the stairs to get their food packets and water. So it would be the cleaning staff providing the help. Even daily hygiene was dealt by them. But they were too careless with COVID protection. While the nurses did not allow us to speak without our masks, these people were themselves not wearing masks properly and interacted with patients. I hope they have all been vaccinated,” he added.


Vaccinations has become another major concern in these areas. The hesitation to take vaccine is quite high in these rural areas. “Especially after the death of Actor Vivek, people are quite afraid to take the vaccines. I have been fighting with my family to take the vaccines, but no one wants to take the ‘risk’. There is very little awareness here, and the government has done little to engage the people and mitigate these fears,” he said. When asked if the local youth could come together to spread the word, he said that even the youth were unaware about the scientific facts and were swayed by anecdotal stories of ill effects of vaccines. He blamed the state for failing to spread proper medical awareness to the people, but also pointed out that the people were acting very inappropriately and letting the disease spread.


Thus, the famed rural medical infrastructure of Tamilnadu is unable to cope to the COVID and people’s response to the illness. From understaffed hospitals to the lack of accessible medicines at PHCs, poor testing and monitoring, the system is showing the lacunae in planning, infrastructure and community engagement. All across the districts, poor medical infrastructure in hospitals and difficulty in reaching these hospitals have been two major issues. Some of the activists even argued that the PHCs should be equipped to treat basic and even oxygen-dependent patients. This will not only reduce the burden on the main hospitals but will make medical care accessible to the people. Given the proximity, it will also help boost confidence among the people.


But for now, workers remain locked up, self-quarantining and self-medicating for the most part and fuelling the second wave with the fears and their carelessness.


Dealing with the third wave?

The government response to the rising covid cases in Coimbatore, has been one of the positive scenes in the fight against COVID second wave. While they reacted slowly (also due to the transition in government), letting COVID spread thick and fast, their response in the last week has been praiseworthy. Home quarantine is being replaced with isolation in local schools, where food and medicines including traditional herbal juices are being provided. This reduces the chances of spread within the household in rural homes that are not equipped for home isolation. Though the infrastructure in these rural government schools are far from adequate, it is a good start. Similarly, along with private companies, the government has increased the availability of oxygen beds in various government universities and private colleges.


Major companies that had continued production even during the lock down are being forced by workers’ protest and government advise to close down for at least a week. While these measures are bearing fruit in reducing transmission as well as severity of covid cases, there is lot to be done to mitigate the effects of the lockdown and bridge the gap between truth and myths regarding the virus.


If a third wave and lockdown need to be prevented, the government must undertake a massive awareness campaign by investing community health practitioners and local members to mitigate the anxieties and fear among the rural population about allopathic treatments, testing and vaccination.


Systematic, industry-based work protocol has to be established to prevent the rapid spread of covid in workplaces, be it garment factories or the brick kilns or in NREGS work. Constant monitoring with the support of workers is essential to quickly identify hot spots and isolate them so that such sites do not become super spreaders.


Even after advisories, it is being highlighted by unions that small factories continue to operate by forcing workers to expose themselves to the virus infection. This can be prevented only if the government departments, like labour, welfare and revenue, work closely with unions and workers’ associations to prevent this.


While the government has always successfully ramped its medical capacity, in the first wave as well as the second wave, it failed to protect the people from the lockdown induced financial distress. It is easy to impose a lockdown, but unless the government makes a commitment to transfer basic income support for an extended period, the uncertainties will force people into extreme debt.


A moratorium on debt payments, an interest waiver for the period of lockdown (including partial lockdowns) and monetary support to meet rental costs will have to be provided to prevent the debt trap for workers. The government at the Centre and the State have failed to ensure this and have tried to avoid engaging the issue altogether by resorting to meagre, one-time financial transfers.


While the vaccination drive might prevent us from COVID for a brief period, only a systematic community and worker driven approach will be able to build resilience to such pandemics. If the government fails to take the initiative, the working class and its leading sections will have to take the responsibility. The unions and working class associations were equally unprepared for the second wave as the government was. We cannot let it be the case in the event of the ‘Third Wave’.


Feature image: NDTV (woman dressed as Mariamma distributing masks in rural TN)

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