Home / News / India /  A rich man’s disease, a poor man’s burden, and the toll it’s taking on self-esteem

For years, Martin, 36, worked as a collection agent in a transport company, a job with a fixed monthly salary, before joining a food delivery app as a delivery executive a year and half ago. He now regrets making that switch and has to choose risking his health by going out or lose his job by not doing so. Martin has to either risk his health by going out or lose his job by not doing so.

Martin works in Aluva, a municipality town whose residents are anxious as it houses the Kochi airport. Most of the primary carriers of Covid-19 who came into Kerala reportedly did so through Kochi airport. Some of them were in contact with people in Aluva and its suburbs, risking infecting others.

The perception of a rich man’s disease burdening the lives of poor men is taking hold in the city.

Like in other Indian towns, many of the salaried class who have the luxury to work from home and retired people are quarantining themselves in the larger Ernakulam city. The government has also opened cells, or care-homes as they are officially called, to quarantine suspected patients arriving at the airports.

As such a lot of people are not moving out of their homes and delivery executives have become a crucial part in the daily life of even suburban cities like Aluva. Yet, other than the few masks and soaps that have been provided, there is precious little protecting people such as Martin from the pandemic. Many such people are likely to go to work despite being ill so as not to lose income as people doing such low-paying jobs do not get the benefit of a paid sick leave.

Besides, those who go out to provide services so that others can stay at home also face stigma, as everyone sees them as ostensible weak spots in the efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

Martin says most of the apartment complexes now do not allow them to enter and ask them to wait at the main entrance. This no doubt also keep them safe but the social stigma that they face takes a toll on their self-esteem he said.

In other parts, garbage workers have come under attack by those who are panicking. “People in shops and hotels have also been treating us differently and are asking us to stay away when they know we collect waste," said Saradha Mani, a waste collector in the city.

None of these are ubiquitous, though. Many families have given paid holidays to their house help, cooks, and drivers. “Our maid commutes long distances in buses to come to work, which leads to a risk to her life and our lives. So we have asked her not to come for two weeks, without affecting her salary. In my sister’s family, her husband had a stroke and it is very difficult to manage on their own. They have a driver who manages everything in the household. We have also asked him to not come and decided to pay his full salary for the month. There is a caretaker for my 86-year old mother, who lives with my brother. She has also been given paid leave," said Parvathy Mohan, an Ernakulam resident.

“I have to get your food to get food for my family. There is a risk of getting the virus. But the only other option is to be jobless," Martin said about the paradox he is facing as the bread-earner in a family of four people. His colleagues at the previous job, as well as traditional taxi cab operators in Aluva for instance, have started distributing welfare funds under their union as a sort of unemployment allowance, so that the drivers could be in quarantine now. However, in the gig economy Martin is, he is not counted as an employee of the food delivery app.

There is also plenty of discouragement from the companies against unionising.

“Everybody is either losing health or money," said a shop owner, requesting not to be named. The man serves milk to an upscale apartment complex known for its closeness to the airport, which is filled with upper-middle-class families. The shop owner credits the growth of his business to the establishment of the airport and the mushrooming of such real estate projects. However, with the coronavirus outbreak, he plans to shut down for the rest of the month, because he thinks the 70 paise profit he gets for selling a packet of milk is not worth risking his health for.

“This place developed because of the airport. We were all happy when it came up," he said. “We never thought it will be enough to kill us faster."

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