COVID – a space for workers?

Covid 19Image Courtesy: TOI

There is a major calamity brewing. State governments that are unable to respond, because they are hemmed in by an unsympathetic Union, are faced by a people desperate for survival, not only from disease, but from hunger and violence. While everyone looks to governments to somehow get their act together, is it possible to look to ordinary, working people (not NGOs) to release their creativity? Some clues may lie in the existing practice of workers’ organisations.

The pandemic that gives rise to social distancing also creates the conditions for social solidarity. Today domestic maids find that, with the home-stay in force, “madams are now working from home”, so they don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn and can go at any time during the day. Now that more office-goers are working from home, delivery boys are making more runs delivering food. For bosses who have their own business, drivers are driving but with protection of masks and sanitizers.

The imagination has to recall the 1897 bubonic plague that hit Maharashtra. It was the courageous Savitribai Phule, and her adopted son Yashwantrao, who opened a clinic at the outskirts of Pune as part of the social reform movement. Yashwantrao died while serving patients of all castes and communities. The same kind of social solidarity was demonstrated by Dwarkanath Kotnis in 1938, when he died in service while providing medical assistance to the Chinese in wartime.

Even during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 in Philadelphia 2,000 nuns, with little experience and training, answered their Archbishop’s call, signing on for 12-hour shifts. They washed linens, served soup, mixed medicine; provided water, blankets, and comfort. One remembered she was struck with “fearful dread”, yet plunged on. And now the Cubans are demonstrating the same courage, love, and solidarity in serving the world.

The Kerala government has led the way in promoting transparent solidarity practices. It has set aside Rs 20,000 crore for payment of pensions, free food-grains for all, subsidised meals, loans for the needy and other measures. It has turned all government hostels into isolation centres and put in place a contact-tracing system to isolate the disease instead of harshly and insensibly locking down. But its main allies have been the mass organisations of workers, women, and youth.

NGOs have proposed that food be delivered to every door or at PDS shops to anyone, by Local Bodies and the Food Department. But does not the real strength of a community lie within itself? Cannot they mobilise to set up community kitchens to both prepare cooked food as well as distribute it among those who need it most? The capital cost of such a kitchen for 200 people is roughly Rs 50,000, with Rs 50,000 more for daily running costs. Can it become a point of solidarity for committees, information, and support?

Along with food, a useful addition may be slice of lemon or the traditional shikanji[1] replacing tea. Lemon contains vitamin C that may help in preventing infection in the respiratory tract, especially in people with low diets and high physical stress. Sitting out in the sun will also help the body produce vitamin D that helps the body fight respiratory illness. Does the kitchen give an opportunity to reclaim the common space where both distance and solidarity are possible?

Migrants ask for vehicles to go back home;sex workers want access to ART tablets; domestic workers look for online payment; street vendors need space to sell; garment workers don’t know how to get advance payments; piece-rated workers search for jobs; and powrakarmikas[2] struggle against untouchability. Does not every one of these represent an opportunity for solidarity actions, for launching collective enterprises by workers that provide cheap transport, health, information, e-skills, job placements, and legal support?

Masks are needed for health care and sanitation workers, and infected persons. They are made from non-woven Polypropylene fabric of grade GSM 60. The same fabric is used for the production of carry bags but of grade GSM 20. Hence, it is possible to purchase GSM 60 fabric, or use disposed carry-bags, for home-based production of masks by stitching four layers for the correct grade. In Kerala and Assam mass-production has been done in jails and homes.Can the same be done for gloves?

Even more urgent is the requirement for hand-washing but the everyday struggle for adequate water faces most workers and their families. Community hand-washing stations using home-made soap and minimal water through home-made dispensers are a practical possibility. Water, with 1% bleach or 10% vinegar added to it has a limited disinfectant effect, but will need to be washed off quickly with water as it harms the skin. So could a two-bucket station that saves water be explored?

Another area for collective action is in identifying sick people and contact-tracing through quick surveys. Only four questions are needed: Have you been to an affected area? Do you have a fever? Do you have persistent/dry cough? Do you have breathlessness? The addition of a Pulse Oximeter App enables checking for fever and blood oxygen saturation. If there is shortness of breath but the oxygen level is over 95% then medical care is not needed.

The funds needed for all these activities can come from Welfare Boards or credit institutions, ULBs, Panchayats, elected representatives, State Disaster Relief Funds, or individual donors. These are the funds that at least nine state governments (including Kerala) have leveraged while others are slow in following. The essential point, though, is how workers’ organisations can demand these funds to promote social solidarity rather than distancing.

Mobilised communities can be extremely effective within their settlements in identifying families in need of assistance; locating empty jhonpris[3] or plots, even houses and trees, in their localities to act as quarantine quarters; persuading potential carriers to self-quarantine; resolving conflicts early; and providing information: all within the frame of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. But could they demand decentralisation to the voting booth level – catering to 1,000 voters?

Do testing kits fall within the frame of solidarity action? Collecting samples is fairly simple. The test procedureis more complex. A kit can be developed in six days, and 15 lakh manufactured each week. Some technologists claim to have already made cheap kits. But the question pro-people scientists, lawyers, managers, engineers, and others have to ask is how to demystify the science, make it simpler, aid collective research and production in workers’ settlements,and reduce the epidemic.

That leaves two obstacles in the actual designing and implementation of such initiatives.

The first is the state of lockdown. Relief work is a good way for people to assemble for care, reduce helplessness and increase empathy. The layouts of the basti[4] and the tola[5] provide the architecture for mobilisation. Provisions – like “acting in good faith” (Epidemic Diseases Act 1897); “involvement of voluntary social-welfare institutions” (Disaster Management Act 2005); no protocol for “lockdown” (Section 144);and “delivery of essential goods” (MHAGuidelines) – can be leveraged by alliances of working people to negotiate the rules for “lockdown”.

The second is how much activists will move beyond relief to mobilising the working poor to meet their own needs: using empowerment to lay claims on government, and reclaiming their rights.That may happen through local discussions about how public infrastructure is being privatized. Do people want food as welfare, or do they wish to decide what food to produce? Do they want funds to be doled out, or do they demand the right to determine how funds will be used? Do they want to be locked up, or do they demand that the government perform its duty? Back in the village, do they want to return to the city, or to restructure the village? – questions that could point to an alternative social organisation.

And, with Pantho Kanai, ring a different bell:

Ghontabajao, doptori

Aar koto din dekhte hobe

Natai baibharo binghuri

Din dupure noshto korbi

Kore jabe monchuri

Ghontabajao, doptori…[6]


(Dunu Roy is Director, Hazards Centre).


1. Lemonade

2. Sanitation workers

3. Hutments

4. Informal settlement

5. Part of the village reserved for the lower class/caste

6. Ring the bell record-keeper; How many days have we to wait; The spool endlessly reels out the kite; Day and noon you waste; You continue stealing my mind; Ring the bell record-keeper




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