Acute financial distress brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown is leading to suicides

04 July 2020
Almost eighty percent of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. The months-long nationwide lockdown to control the COVID-19 pandemic brought economic activity almost to a standstill across sectors, with daily-wage earners, farmers and migrant labourers among some of the worst hit. Public-health experts have cautioned that the resultant financial insecurity is leading to a mental-health crisis in the country.
Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg / Getty Images
Almost eighty percent of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector. The months-long nationwide lockdown to control the COVID-19 pandemic brought economic activity almost to a standstill across sectors, with daily-wage earners, farmers and migrant labourers among some of the worst hit. Public-health experts have cautioned that the resultant financial insecurity is leading to a mental-health crisis in the country.
Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg / Getty Images

“The Rs 25,000 cash in hand we had, it was all spent on food while sitting idle during the lockdown. What will we do after this? Because of these financial troubles, I am ending my life story,” read the suicide note left behind by 53-year-old Raghuveer Singh. A resident of the Jagdishpur locality, in the city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh, Singh died by suicide on 22 June. Sachin Kumar, Singh’s nephew, told me, “Uncle had been searching for work for the past ten days but could not find any work.” Kumar added, “He used to come to our house during the lockdown and worry about how the family would make ends meet.”

The nationwide lockdown to combat the novel coronavirus, which came into force on 25 March, has devastated the Indian economy across the board. Daily-wage earners, migrant labourers, farmers and workers in the unorganised sector, who account for almost eighty percent of India’s workforce, have struggled to earn a living over the past three months. The lockdown necessitated social distancing, which disrupted normal community-based support systems. This was an added stress over and above the widespread financial insecurity. A week into the lockdown, mental-health experts started putting out cautionary messages about the possible effects of the lockdown on the populace’s mental health. While there is no official collated data as of yet on the number of suicides across the country during the lockdown, media reports, anecdotal evidence and independent databases maintained by scholars seem to suggest a spike in the numbers of deaths by suicide.

Kumar told me that Singh worked as a leather cutter and the eldest of his four children had joined him in the trade. Two of his children are still in primary school. Singh’s whole family lived in a one-room apartment, which cost them Rs 3,500 per month in rent. Kumar lost his father in February this year, and he said that Singh had been worried since then. “After the lockdown opened, the trouble increased,” Kumar said, since there was no work available even after the fourth phase of the lockdown ended on 31 May. He said it was the eldest son who found Singh and they rushed him to the Jeevan Jyoti Hospital, where he was declared dead.

Shashank Raikwar, a 17-year-old resident of Nandanpur, in Jhansi city, lost his father on the night of 19 June. Deepak Raikwar, who was 38 years old, died by suicide. “Papa used to drive taxis. Papa had two taxis , which he had taken from the bank on loan,” Shashank told me. “He used to leave in his taxi every day at 8 in the morning, come back around 1 in the afternoon, leave again at 4 pm and back at 9 pm.” He said that after coming back from work, the whole family used to eat together and play games on the mobile. “On that day, papa did not play games with us. We thought maybe he is not feeling well.”

Shashank, his grandparents, an aunt and three siblings live in a three-room house. Apart from the income from Deepak’s taxis, the rest of the family were engaged in making boxes for sweets. Shashank told me that this trade had stopped during the lockdown. He said that once the lockdown guidelines allowed private taxis to run, “Papa took his taxi out for many days. But he was not getting any fare. He could barely earn fifty to hundred rupees a day.” He added, “During the lockdown, papa had no work, but he still had to pay instalments for both his taxis, around thirty thousand rupees monthly, and my school was also sending messages that my fee was due. That was another Rs 19,000 which had to be paid.”

Sunil Kashyap is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown suicide Uttar Pradesh economic slowdown
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