By Walter Fernandes SJ
Being in the extreme Northeast of India has always been considered a disadvantage for this region of more that 45 million people because of poor communication with the centres of power. In addition, the region has very little power of advocacy since it sends very few representatives to the Federal Parliament. But in the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, its relative isolation turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the virus took a long time to reach the region. As of now, the area has only two confirmed positive cases – a 23-year old woman who returned to Manipur from the UK on March 21 after completing her doctoral studies, and a Baptist pastor who returned to Mizoram from the Netherlands two days later. The numbers may be higher because testing is low in India, but it is bound to be much lower than in the rest of India.
That can change in the next few days. Because of high unemployment in the Northeast, a large number of its youth migrate to cities in the rest of India in search of unskilled or semi-skilled work in the hospitality industry, as security guards and other low-paid jobs. Around 100,000 of them have come back home since the enterprises where they work have closed down because of the pandemic. Many of them have come from cities where the virus has spread. One cannot exclude the possibility that they have carried COVID-19 with them. One will know during the next few days. Because testing is low in India and is limited to foreign travellers entering India and those arriving by air travel, one may not know its extent immediately. Testing is slowly being extended to train travel. Most returnee migrants have gone back to their villages where testing is almost non-existent. The lockdown can prevent the spread of the disease, but they live in small houses and it is not easy to enforce social distancing. It may spread and one will only know its full extent in the next few weeks.
Of equal importance is a possible economic pandemic. Even if the disease does not reach the region through the migrant workers, the returnee migrants and their families face an economic disaster. They were holding low paid jobs and do not have any savings to tide them over a crisis of this magnitude. As present, they are without work and without social and financial security. To them and to their families, it may mean a disaster and even starvation. The economic pandemic that has hit the returnee migrants is equally true of a larger population in the region. Many of them are migrants from other regions of India or from Bangladesh. They sustain themselves through daily wage unskilled work. With the lockdown, they are deprived of such work with no alternative and they, too, face starvation.
Racism has to be added to the dangers linked to the virus, which many now call the Chinese virus as Mr Donald Trump did. A relatively large number of migrants from the Northeast have Mongoloid features. Because of this, the migrants who continue to remain in the cities to which they have migrated are taunted as carriers of the disease. Many landlords have asked them to vacate their houses. Thus they are subjected to another type of racist pandemic. One cannot exclude the possibility of the returnee migrants facing such discrimination in the villages to which they have returned.
This is a challenge that the churches and civil society (what is called non-profit in the Americas) organisations should face. Many of their representatives are meeting this evening (March 27) to look at the possibilities of coming together to prepare food packets for the migrant and other workers who face starvation. The Government of India has announced an Indian rupee 1.7 trillion (USD 25 billion) package for the poor. Some State governments have their own packages and other arrangements. These representatives are also discussing ways of ensuring that these benefits reach the needy. The churches and civil society groups should face this major challenge together and work hand-in-hand to support the needy.
Dr Walter Fernandes SJ is a Senior Fellow at the North Eastern Social Research Centre in Kohima, India.