Home / Opinion / Columns /  The marginalized bear the brunt of the pandemic
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For the past several weeks, fresh covid cases in India have remained below 30,000 per day. In many states, this figure has reduced to a few hundreds. This is why there is optimism about the end of the second covid wave. Is it going to end the fear of the third wave? Experts are not unanimous on this. Overall, it is difficult to gauge the socioeconomic impact caused by the pandemic. What has happened so far is a horrific saga in itself.

Meet Sumitra. One day, while working as a labourer in a drought-hit district of Uttar Pradesh, a thought flashed in her mind: if this situation prevails, her children will also end up as daily wagers. At home, she talked about this with her husband. That night, the two of them decided that they would go to Delhi. The next month, they took a small loan and left for Noida as some of their relatives were already there. After a lot of hard work, they got a foothold there. Their children started going to school.

However, covid struck and a lockdown was announced. Two months passed, but they did not get any work. Soon, they returned to their village empty-handed. Neglect from their loved ones added to their troubles. All this while, schools remained shut. Six months later, they returned to Noida. The couple found work again, but the young ones could not go to school. They are not alone. Millions of children are yet to return to schools.

While surveying 15 states and UTs, a team of eminent economists such as Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and research scholar Vipul Paikra found that the pandemic has put an entire generation of children at risk. According to the survey, only 8% of rural children were able to take advantage of online classes regularly, while 37% did not attend any such classes. Will this educational gap be filled? The survey found that a child who was in Class 3 before covid has technically reached Class 5, but his ability has remained at par with a child of Class 1. This is scary. These kids will be disappointed when they are judged on the basis of academic ability in the coming years.

About 5% of the children in this survey come from Dalit and tribal sections. Clearly, the next generation of these already marginalized communities will face more inequality. As per the Centre’s instructions, all states had given orders for conducting online classes, but the complete compliance of this order is impossible. This problem was there almost everywhere in remote villages, where 4G services are rare. About 77% of urban areas have access to smartphones, while in rural areas this figure is stuck at 51%.

Another survey found that there was tremendous growth in online payments during the second wave. The consumption of online content also increased, but online education remained stagnant and limited. In rural areas, there are very few households capable of providing smartphones to children.

Meanwhile, 14% of children studying in government schools in villages and 20% of government school students in urban areas were deprived of mid-day meals during this period. Researchers believe that many won’t be able to return to schools. Experts also believe that the economic inequality gap will widen if the damage done to children is not immediately compensated.

This apprehension becomes stronger when we look at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data. RBI’s analysis of more than 2,500 companies listed on the stock exchange found that their profits had tripled in the first quarter of this financial year as compared to the same period last year. It means that on the one hand, the companies have become rich, while on the other, the common man has become more helpless than before. Not surprisingly, in July, a huge jump of 77% was seen in the number of people seeking loans by pledging gold. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 1.5 million people lost their jobs in August alone. Of these, 1.3 million come from rural areas. If we juxtapose these figures with the students who have been left out of schools, then we can find a new tragic saga emerging.

History tells us that epidemics wreak havoc. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed more than 10 million Indians. At that time, the economy had slumped and inflation had skyrocketed. The people who suffered the most were from the lower rungs of society.

A British report published in 1919 analysed the death figures of Bombay on the basis of social classification; it was found that more than 61% of those who died were from low-income groups and lower social classes. They did not even have a home for self-quarantine. Epidemics tend to target the weaker sections more. Unfortunately, the same is happening this time also.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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