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An Unimaginable Privilege

By April 21, 2020June 30th, 2020Coronavirus, India, migration, The Weekly

“Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.” – Jeremiah 9:20

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” — Benjamin Franklin

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” William James

“I just want to go home.” Indian migrant worker

“I ask for forgiveness from my countrymen for the hardship, especially the poor,…” Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India

(Day 37 of the federal guidelines for social distancing)

What happens when a good idea goes bad, fast, really fast? Something is happening globally that we are barely hearing about in the West. Why? Perhaps we are so focused on our own coronavirus phobias that the situation simply hasn’t risen to a volume that we can hear. Maybe the Indian government is so embarrassed that they do not want the major dilemma to be made public. It is likely that it is such a huge problem that no one is really sure what to do about it.

The topic of this week’s study is the migrant calamity in India following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national 21-day lock-down decree which started on March 24 at midnight. “Every state, every district, every lane, every village will be under lockdown,” Mr. Modi said. 

Imagine if you will, a national leader declaring a shut-down of all narrowly defined non-essential services, and giving the second most populous nation on earth four hours to prepare and comply. “There will be a total ban of coming out of your homes.” (Anyone who refused to follow the restrictions faced up to a year in jail.) What could go wrong?… Let’s look today at several second and third-order effects of that decision.

I do not intend to be one of those analysts who has the privilege of looking at events with hindsight, and to point my finger at national leaders, wagging it in front of their faces with disdain for their lack of foresight. Hindsight is always 20/20. It is tiring to me, as pundits and analysts seem to make “jumping to conclusions” an Olympic-worthy sport these days. I will resist the temptation to say what shoulda, woulda, coulda been done. I will leave it at: There is more than meets the eye.


The current population of India is 1,328,895,718 as of Saturday, August 20, 2016, based on the latest United Nations estimates, accounting for nearly 18 percent of the world’s population and placing them second only to China for the most people. However, a UN Report published last year says that India’s population will likely surpass China’s in 2022.

Not only does India have a huge proportion of the world’s population it also is home to the largest internal migrant community. The Indian economy is powered by tens of millions of manual laborers and informal workers. India’s estimated migrant worker population is said to be 139 million strong. If these impoverished workers were their own country they would be the tenth-largest country in the world, right behind Russia. 

As a result of the government’s shutdown, Indian migrant workers are lacking earning capacity and money, and with public transportation at a standstill, hundreds of thousands of migrants who have no job security or protection, no ability to pay rent or buy food are being forced to trek often hundreds of miles back to their home villages – with some dying on the journey, noted OHCHR. “The staying power of India’s poor is very, very short. People like casual laborers, rickshaw pullers and migrant workers are basically living from hand to mouth at the best of times,” said Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born Indian economist. 

As one can imagine there are several issues emerging as a result of the immediate lockdown measures, which are beginning to rise to significant proportions as more and more lives are being impacted. This current situation also brings to light some of the inherent problems in the world’s largest democratically elected government; problems which if not corrected soon, will spark a whole new set of problems, some that could possibly cause irreparable damage to the entire country of India. Here are a few of them which are beginning to emerge.

  1. The current crisis among the impoverished workers in India is highlighting the immense disparity between the wealthy, middle class and the poor of India. Many think of this as a uniquely Western problem. Removing some of the artificial facades of a very complex social system in India is beginning to expose ways that India has not stepped into the 21st century socially. “Getting this right” might be a great opportunity for India to correct some of its social omissions. “The lockdown was good for well-to-do people. For migrant workers, there is no safety margin. We just hope the lockdown was early enough that none of them were infected.”
  2. India has spent little of its Gross Domestic Product on a national healthcare solution. Currently, India spends less than 2% of its national treasury on healthcare. The annual data released by the government said India spent only 1.28 percent of its GDP (2017-18) as public expenditure on health. Compare that to the United States that spends approximately 18%. Most of the rest of the West spends approximately 10% of its GDP on healthcare.

There are additional circumstances that make healthcare an extremely important issue in India. The coronavirus is known to attack especially bodies which suffer from compromised immunization systems. Here are some relatively unknown statistics of which few of us are aware. Not only do the people in India not spend a lot of money on healthcare, but they are also a nation with an exceptionally high number of immunocompromised people. 

Chronic conditions that affect the immune system include heart disease, lung disease, lupus, and diabetes. Other conditions that can leave a person immunocompromised include cancer, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, and some rare genetic disorders.

One in six people with diabetes in the world is from India. The numbers place the country among the top 10 countries for people with diabetes, coming in at number two with an estimated 77 million diabetics. China leads the list with over 116 million diabetics. Diabetes is fertile soil for coronavirus to take up residence.

One in five young adults in India has high blood pressure, according to research presented at the 70th Annual Conference of the Cardiological Society of India (CSI). That equates to around 80 million people, which is more than the entire UK population. High blood pressure (hypertension) is the leading global cause of premature death. It is a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, chronic kidney disease, and cognitive decline. Once again, high blood pressure can leave the body immunocompromised. Large swaths of Indians suffer from hypertension.

3.  The coronavirus shutdown exposes India’s apathy towards the lower class.  Migrant laborers are among the most vulnerable parts of the “informal sector,” which make up 80 percent of India’s workforce. The country’s infrastructure is built on the backs of these workers. They construct malls, multiplexes, hospitals, apartment blocks, hotels. They work as factory hands, delivery boys, loaders, cooks, painters, rickshaw pullers. They stand the whole day by the side of the road selling fruits and vegetables and tea and flowers. 

These migrant workers most often come to cities to look for work, because they cannot make a living in their villages. They are rarely part of a trade union and typically work without any contract or benefits. Most earn cash and do not leave a paper trail. They are also disproportionately from historically marginalized groups, referred to, in the country’s official lexicon, as “scheduled castes” (those at the bottom of Hinduism’s hierarchy of castes) and tribal groups. Nationally, these two groups make up about 25 percent of the population. 

The night Prime Minister Modi decreed the lockdown, migrant workers immediately started to escape from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, and just about every other city to which the economic opportunities had drawn them in the first place. They knew they could not afford to stay in the city if they had no income. In their village, at least they had family, wouldn’t have to pay rent, and were more likely to get some rice or bread to eat.

4. Then all of a sudden needs of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stretched to a breaking point the fragile Indian social infrastructure that had kept the lower-income masses at a point of contentment. 

Clearly, this mass movement of individuals surprised the government. Few, if any politicians had preconceived that this kind of reaction would ensue. There were no plans made for these exigencies. Officials issued frantic orders to seal interstate borders and for people to maintain their distance from others so that the virus could not spread. They said that those on the move should quarantine for 14 days. Their lack of clarity is quickly exposed as they issue one order after another requiring people with no job, therefore no income, no ability to pay rent or buy food, to stay at home and quarantine for 21 days.

The invisibility of this massive group of people has all of a sudden been laid bare. No one really knows whether COVID-19 has entered the rural parts of the country where nearly 70 percent of Indians live. Jan Sahas, an Indian nonprofit, recently conducted a survey, “Voices of the Invisible Citizens,” about the impact of the lockdown on migrant workers. They interviewed 3,196 migrant construction workers from northern and central India. The results paint a dismal picture: “62 percent of workers did not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government and 37 percent did not know how to access the existing schemes.” There is one silver lining to this whole mess. The new coronavirus has given migrants a sudden visibility in the national discourse.

Lastly, it needs to be mentioned that the Modi government has made an economic stimulus package allotment of $22.6 billion so that no one will go hungry during the nation-wide lockdown. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government would provide food rations and cash transfers for three months to take care of “the welfare concerns of poor and suffering workers, and those who need immediate help.”


The coronavirus pandemic in India and the initiatives of the government along with the reactions of the internal migrant community could be an ominous early warning signal to not only the Indian government but to any country where large numbers of people are ignored.  I suppose the warning question for us as Christians is:  Are we ignoring the poor? Have they become invisible to us, especially as we seclude ourselves away and hide behind our self-constructed walls of protection? Is there a way that we can protect the dignity of those who have far less than we do?

I am choosing to let the situation in India serve as a powerful personal reminder to not forget the vulnerable in our society. Ignoring needy people is not merely an international problem; it hits close to home as well. How we treat the poor is an indicator of the kinds of humans we are becoming. Neglecting them is a gross negligence. The coronavirus is serving as a litmus test to reveal what kind of people we will be. 


One way, existentially, that we can protect ourselves from disregarding the invisible is by never complaining about having to physically distance ourselves from one another during this difficult season. It is an unimaginable privilege, one that millions, perhaps hundreds of millions in the world wish they could do. I understand the need for people to get back to work. But rather than settle on simplistic solutions of isolation, there needs to be some creative solutions to integration.

Secondly, we can use a small fraction of our time and money to help someone in need. I am sure we all know somebody who needs help right now.  Go online to, E-bay or a grocery store and buy some needed supplies for someone. You might be amazed to find out that some of the people you know are on the brink of falling apart. Your gift to them could be what pulls them out of their doldrums.

Thirdly, we could make a financial commitment to a trustworthy organization that is physically reaching out to help the needy right now. Organizations, such as Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, and my favorite, Refugees for Refugees could really use our help these days. I am personally involved in buying and building tents for refugees who continue to pour into Lesbos, Greece.

The follow-up.

Iran: Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses 32,200 in 294 Cities…

The coronavirus could kill 100,000 people in Syria’s embattled Idlib region, sped on by cramped, unhygienic camps and a lack of testing…

The feed-back.

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