COVID-19 and the pandemic-induced lockdown exacerbated the already existing social inequalities in India and widened the gap in access to education, health and livelihoods—that is the key finding of a report released by Oxfam India, a non-profit, on 25 January. Titled “The Inequality Virus,” the report examined the unequal impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the “haves and have-nots.” It highlighted the disproportionate impact of the virus on marginalised communities such as Dalits, Adivasis, and women.
The report emphasised that while the “majority of India suffered,” and 1,70,000 people lost their jobs every hour in the month of April 2020, India’s wealthiest increased their wealth. “India’s 100 billionaires have seen their fortunes increase by Rs 12,97,822 crores since March 2020, enough to give every one of the 138 million poorest Indian people a cheque for Rs 94,045 each,” the report said. It added that it would take an unskilled worker 10,000 years to make what industrialist Mukesh Ambani made in an hour during the pandemic and three years to make what he made in a second. It further elaborated that what Ambani earned during the pandemic would keep 40 crore informal workers that are at risk of falling into poverty due to COVID-19 above the poverty line for at least 5 months. Highlighting the stark inequality in the country, the report noted that the increase in wealth of the top 11 billionaires of India during the pandemic could sustain the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or the health ministry for 10 years. It added that if India’s top 11 billionaires are taxed at just one percent on the increase in their wealth during the pandemic, it will be enough to increase the allocation of the Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana, a scheme to provide affordable medicines to the poor and marginalised, by 140 times.
The report examined the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown in three specific areas—education, health and livelihood. “Till the end of October, the number of students affected by the closure of educational institutions stands at over 32 crores,” the report said, “Of those, 84 percent reside in rural areas and 70 percent attend government schools.” Oxfam India’s survey across five states also found that “close to 40 percent of teachers in government schools fear that prolonged school closure might lead to a third of the students not returning once schools reopen.” The reported noted, “It is likely that a higher rate of drop-out will be witnessed among Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. Many of them will become victims of child labour and child marriage.”
The report further highlighted that the switch to online education excluded the vast majority of Indians who do not have access to technology. “Out of the poorest 20 percent households in India, only 2.7 percent have access to a computer and 8.9 percent to internet facilities,” it said.” On the health front, the report noted that it has been difficult for most Indians to follow the pandemic’s social distancing norms. It emphasised that the spread of disease “was swift among poor communities, often living in crammed areas with poor sanitation and using shared common facilities such as toilets and water points.”
Analysing the access to non-COVID health services in rural areas, it noted that the “disruption of health services” during the lockdown was “significantly higher” in rural India compared to urban areas. “This can be attributed to the closure of all primary health centres and deployment of the staff on COVID-19 duties in rural areas, which already has comparatively sparse health infrastructure and human resource availability compared to its urban counterparts.”