Penny, Vera-Sanso

Senior Lecturer, Development Studies and Social Anthropology

Birkbeck, University of London

Convenor, Ageing in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Special Interest Group, British Society of Gerontology

(This blog, originally written on 2nd  May, is updated as of 11th May.)

The expectation is COVID-19 will run wild through the high density low-income settlements that Chennai’s poor are forced to live in.  This may yet happen. What is happening is a great deal of COVID-related suffering, including excess deaths, deepening impoverishment and changing intergenerational relations that will force some older people into greater dependency and marginalization and others into more depleting economic engagements.

Currently the greatest threat for people living in low-income settlements is COVID-related impacts. How is this possible?  First, India is a highly segregated society.  Segregated by class, caste and labour conditions, in which 90% of workers have no rights, most are employed on daily or piece rates. There are few points of contact that would provide person-to-person spread between slum dwellers and the ‘flying classes’ who brought the disease to India on flights from Wuhan, UAE, Italy and so on. Further, the longstanding stigmatization of slum dwellers and low caste people as sources of contagion, which underpins widespread Human Rights abuses in India, meant that the people most likely to be carrying the disease, the Middle Classes, shut off all direct contact with those least likely to have it, slum dwellers. Second, India implemented a lockdown on the 25th March, when it only had 519 cases, quarantining tourists, banning international commercial flights and suspending train services.  Third, it established Containment Zones for any buildings or areas with one or more confirmed cases.  Containment is backed up with targeted testing and tracing. As of 29.4.20 there were 170 containment zones across India and 1075 deaths.  In these no-one can leave their homes: groceries are delivered through government channels. The lockdown and containment are stringently policed, often heavy handedly.  Chennai’s wholesale and retail vegetable, fruit and flower market which is the largest market in Asia has proved to be the largest COVID-19 pool, spreading the virus across Tamil Nadu and other southern States. Koyambedu is a market that attracts a wide cross-section of society, from people living in nearby gated communities, vendors living in low-income settlements to loadmen and drivers bringing produce from rural areas.  Panic buying in response to Tamil New Year and curtailed opening hours reportedly doubled the number of people attending the market, taking it to approximately 45,000 visitors in a day.  As of 11th May the death toll across the whole of Tamil Nadu has risen to 53, cases had risen to 8,000.  This is a worrying development as tracing vendors’ who have contracts with hundreds of customers will not be possible. Irrespective of this threatening development since the end of April, for main health concern arises not from the impact of a COVID-19 infection but from COVID-related impacts.

For most of the urban poor COVID-19 has brought their economic lives to a standstill. Research undertaken in five Chennai slums between 2007-10, including the 2008 international banking crisis, that translated into a significant economic slow down in Chennai, is instructive.  Chennai’s labour market is segregated by age, gender and education, and has until now provided considerable economic space for older people, who occupied areas of the economy that younger people had vacated for higher status, easier conditions and better pay.  Young people from low-income households tend to work in locations seen as modern, in shopping malls, driving taxis, on large building sites and in factories as well as domestic work.  Middle-aged and older women tend to be self-employed, hawking goods, trading as pavement vendors in street markets. Middle-aged men drive auto-rickshaws, older men work as security, watchmen and cycle-rickshaw pullers. The building sites, shopping malls and factories have shut. People servicing the ‘balcony class’, many of whom now work from home, have been told to stay away. What remains open as sources of work for slum dwellers? Subsidised, Amma canteens, mostly staffed by middle aged women, hospital work for young women, street markets which provides the main arena of work for older women, as pavement vendors selling greens and vegetables, and some associated transport work for older men as market porters, rickshaw pullers and auto-drivers.

People on low, insecure, daily incomes do not earn enough to save. There is no question that after six weeks without work everyone in Chennai’s low-income settlements, whose nutritional status would not have been good, anaemia and malnutrition being endemic, will have cut food expenditures to the bone – commonly to one small carbohydrate meal a day and fermented rice water, which people resort to when they have nothing else. Protein and vegetables will be rare, especially if people are trading pulses for rice to put more food on the plate. Beyond this, the wider context impinges on people’s health and capacity to seek healthcare. Water shortages and temperatures ranging from 34 deg C to 40 deg C contribute to dehydration and heat stroke. Free health services are centrally located, hence inaccessible for most people, while private doctors and medication need to be paid for. All this in a context where male slum dwellers already have a life expectancy of 5 years less than non-slum dwellers, reflecting globally established social gradients in morbidity and mortality. Slum residents will have lost assets, being unable to redeem pawned items, and will be working their way through the assets that remain, a steel cooking vessel, a sari.  Many will have nothing to pawn and unless they have a regular pension to back a loan, will not be able to get credit for food or even minor pharmacy expenses. They will not be able to pay or collect rents, creating a range of problems for renters but also for people, particularly older single women, who sub-divide their dwelling for an income.  Most importantly, the family, neighbor and kin networks on which older and younger people depend to reduce poverty risks will be unable to help them. For the urban poor starvation, non-COVID-19 sickness and deepening vulnerability are currently the greatest dangers they face; these will drive them back into finding work, often servicing those classes and sectors who comprise the current pool in which COVID-19 swims.  Hunger will bring the virus to the slums.

It will happen for two reasons.  First, the competition for work will necessitate a rapid re-establishment of prior economic relations.  Second is the paucity of government provision and poor coverage of the entitled population. Government provided basic rations of no-cost rice, pulses, oil and sugar and Rs1000 to the poorest ration cardholders but various impediments prevent many who qualify from accessing the free rations. The Government also paid Rs1,000 payments to members of the unorganised sector Welfare Boards, whose coverage of the targeted population is poor and random and to registered pavement vendors, yet most older vendors are not registered. The Old Age Pension is Rs1,000 per month for the proportion of qualifying people who actually receive this provision, which is capped well below the numbers who qualify for it. What does Rs1000 amount to?  Thirteen years ago rents in Chennai’s slum settlements were commonly between Rs600-Rs1250 per month.  In 2007, for Rs600 it was just possible to rent a run down, thatched hut big enough to roll out two single person mats on to a bare mud floor, no light, no water, no toilet. In 2020, a one off payment of Rs1000 for a lockdown that will last six or more weeks is gestural politics.

Street markets and associated activities represent a key arena of essential economic activity that is largely abandoned by young people and overlooked by the State.  It has, until now, provided opportunities for older people to work in a context in which state welfare provision is derisory and coverage random as is typical of measures primarily aimed at vote banking. The question is whether current government organizing of vegetable distribution in Containment Zones and relocation of wholesale markets will generate long-term attempts to relocate and more comprehensively license trading.  Past experience has demonstrated that in those contexts ageist norms are used to lock older people, particularly older women, out of their livelihood. There is a danger that older people will be displaced in markets by younger people, either by their younger family members or via market organisers, thereby forcing them into greater poverty and dependency – assuming that they have people on whom they can become dependent.

Since writing this blog, on the 3rd May the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority has closed the Koyambedu wholesale and retail market.  On 11th May a new wholesale market was opened outside the city for 270 wholesalers.  Passes have been issued for the market that place resource thresholds that exclude older people. (See follow-on blog.)

In this world turned upside down, the poor are, currently, much more at risk from excess, COVID-related deaths than COVID-19 itself.  Loss of health, assets, jobs, housing and the disruption of social and economic networks beyond their settlements are the immediate impacts of lockdown.  There will be mid and long term impacts. At best mid-term impacts will be relatively short lived, requiring greater labour force participation for everyone in low-income settlements – but not the ‘pull your socks up’ participation that neo-liberal economists like to think will raise household incomes.  People of all ages and abilities will be forced onto the labour market, lowering pay rates.  Older women and men, a higher percentage of whom are already in paid work than are people aged 15-19, will be forced into even more body depleting hours and conditions on less pay, in a context in which age discrimination in employment and wages is well established.  Family and kin networks will develop holes due to the underlying health conditions, deepening nutritional deficits and untreated morbidity under COVID-19 conditions and directly from COVID-19 if it spreads through the slums. Tamil Nadu is a state with a comparatively low fertility rate. COVID-19’s direct and indirect consequences will sharpen the long-term risks of reducing the size of family networks in the context of weak state support.

Older people with small, depleted or no family, with no or inadequate pensions or who have lost work will find their capacity to cater for themselves or to rely on others significantly constrained. They could well become even more tied into impoverished family networks that increasingly depend on older people’s inputs.

There is no getting away from the need for a realistic income for all people over age 60 and a pension programme that guarantees such.

Irrespective of whether COVID-19 finds spreads through Chennai’s low-income settlements or not, excess COVID-related deaths are a certainty.  It will be political will that determines whether these deaths and the pandemic’s long-term impacts on people living in low-income settlements will ever be recognized for what they are: the consequence of how India chooses to distribute its risks across society.