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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 36  |  Issue : 5  |  Page : 84-86

“Unheard voices of the pandemic”: Psychosocial vulnerabilities of the Indian migrant population during COVID-19 crisis

1 Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Department of Psychiatry, JSS Medical College and Hospital, JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research, Mysuru, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission23-Jul-2020
Date of Acceptance25-Jul-2020
Date of Web Publication02-Oct-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Debanjan Banerjee
Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijsp.ijsp_237_20

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How to cite this article:
Banerjee D, Sathyanarayana Rao T S. “Unheard voices of the pandemic”: Psychosocial vulnerabilities of the Indian migrant population during COVID-19 crisis. Indian J Soc Psychiatry 2020;36, Suppl S1:84-6

How to cite this URL:
Banerjee D, Sathyanarayana Rao T S. “Unheard voices of the pandemic”: Psychosocial vulnerabilities of the Indian migrant population during COVID-19 crisis. Indian J Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Oct 28];36, Suppl S1:84-6. Available from: https://www.indjsp.org/text.asp?2020/36/5/84/297140

“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself”

Albert Camus, La Peste (The Plague), 1943, pp. 62.[1]

Khandelwal, in his comprehensively drafted review in this issue,[2] aptly highlights one of the touching aspects during the ongoing outbreak in India – the crisis of the migrant workforce (pp. 18–19). Besides making us aware of the immense importance of health care and emergency service workers, the virus has also showcased the sad reality of the migrants, who play a pivotal role in the Indian economy. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has surged into a global health threat within months of its emergence, as every nation faces unique challenges to deal with the outbreak. India, being under constant “internal migration” for employment and living, has faced significant difficulties with the care and provisions for its migrant labor force. This commentary glances at few aspects of the “despair” of this vulnerable section of the population, through the lens of the “Social determinants.”[2]

  The Long Way Back to “home” Top

To quote Dr. Chinmay Tumbe from his book “India Moving: The History of Migration,” “A little bit of India moves with every migrant worker.”[3] The Indian migrant workforce (daily wage workers and laborers) range roughly between 100 and 125 million, who have left their places of origin, families, and homes, to find work and livelihood wherever possible.[4] “It is an obligation for us Saheb, not a choice! Would you really want to stay away from your newborn son for years? But, at the end of the day, it is me who have to feed him,” as mentioned by one of the migrant workers from Bihar residing locally, involved in a construction worksite at our Institute.

Some of us are also migrants, living away from home, for years altogether, and we can all resonate this common realization, i.e., living away from “home” is never easy, especially when “home” in our sociocultural context signifies much more than just an accommodation. It is a nurturing place of emotional bonds, family ties, and memories that make a significant part of our identity. During times like this, when the pandemic threat looms large, being at the comfort of home also provides psychological resilience, which the migrant workers are largely deprived of. Ironically, they are as much prone to the physiological effects of the infection, as they are to the psychosocial and economic offshoots of the “sudden lockdown” in an effort to contain it. Some suffered from salary cuts, and many became unemployed; however, what all of them wanted was at least to reach their homes, which was the real challenge in absence of transport. As rightly mentioned in the article,[2] many of them were forced to walk miles on a “long and arduous journey”, driven by hunger and lack of basic living amenities, in the absence of any policy or plan to safeguard their interests. As the lockdown progressed through the four phases, it has been pointed out that “their plight became evident by the heart rending stories that started trickling in the print, as well as the social media.”[2] Assuming that they are as much a citizen of this country as anyone of us, a prudent question arises: How did they differ from the Indians stranded abroad who were flown back promptly at the initiation of COVID-19 crisis or the students who were returned home from their coaching centers at Rajasthan, Kerala, etc.? Eventually, special trains were arranged for the migrant workforce, but even then, their travel has faced immense ambiguity and inequality over time.

  The “vicious Cycle” of Infringements Top

Each kind of work has its own dignity. However, the migrant workers are mainly involved in manual labor in extremely difficult and threatening conditions, irrespective of the climatic or environmental outbursts. Even though, we are traditionally trained to respect the ideals of visionaries such as Gandhiji, Hegel, Marx, and Luther King, the intensive and under-paid labor of the migrants often tend to be overlooked by the administration, deprived of human and socioeconomic rights, blinded by societal apathy and dealt with through “sympathy” and “charity.” Migrant labor and mental illness have always had a close bi-directional relationship; the above-mentioned factors contributing toward the “social and minority stress.”[5] We agree with the view mentioned in the review [2] that the migrant workforce will continue to suffer from chronic physical and psychosocial morbidities even in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the “vicious cycle of poverty, poor health and inability to access any kind of health care.”[2] It is unfortunate to realize how we, the so-called “socially affluent” class have taken their back-breaking work to “be granted,” and considered their social upliftment as an option, rather than a priority. For the migrant workforce, work is an important source of satisfaction, self-esteem, and dignity, which is the best that they can do being away from home and susceptible to a contagious outbreak. Human rights and dignity are equally applicable to this population, repeatedly violated in the overcrowded stations and streets, where thousands of them get stranded in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions. When the World Health Organization has recurrently emphasized on the three-pronged approach of “social distancing, hand hygiene, and respiratory hygiene” as the main strategy to fight against COVID-19, each of these seems a “luxury” for the migrant workers, when masks, soaps or even water tend to become “rare commodities” for this section of the population. Many of them have also turned homeless, which itself tends to be a unique vulnerability for an illness like COVID-19 with high human-human transmission. It is important to understand, that as the COVID-19 crisis progressed in the country, most of these migrants were “obliged” to go back home; more for survival than for comfort. Many of them work in metropolitan cities with a high cost of living, where survival is nearly impossible with the bare minimum money they are left with, compounded by the socio-economic infringements. In fact, viral detection (through active testing) and quarantine options are also minimally available for them.

  The “vulnerable and Deprived” Top

Dr. Ravi Srivastava, Honorary Director of the Center for Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development, Delhi, has recently and quite relevantly described the migrant workforce as “people from nowhere,” characterized by four “D”s: Dirty, dangerous, difficult and the most consistent one, discriminated.[6] All of these terms represent the socioenvironmental situations that they live and work in, as well as how the society perceives them. The National Sample Survey (NSS) shows that most of the migrant laborers are from the rural areas and belong to the poorest socioeconomic classes. Even though they form the economic backbone of construction and agricultural sectors, the “we versus they” dichotomy of the classical “class divide” has always stigmatized and “othered” them to form the outcast in terms of rights, health care, and legal provisions. The Indian Pandemic Act, 1897 already needs a major overhaul and as has been mentioned,[2] integrating psychosocial equality, mental health interventions, and identification of the “at-risk populations” need active incorporation into the public health response to disaster management.

The virus, unlike humans, does not discriminate based on socioeconomic class, race, color, or ethnicity. The societal “blind-eye” to the safety of the “migrant workforce” has started to “boomerang” us of late, when many of them are returning to their respective places, being the “carriers” of infection. Sadly, they are being blamed for this too, which is a social blow even for those who could return to their homes. The current crises that the migrant workers are facing, is also an amplification of their distress during the otherwise “normal times.” Most of them are exploited and deprived of the legally minimum wages that they deserve. They have no rights to contest the transparency of their salaries and become increasingly accountable for their financial indebtedness to various employers. Added to that is their dire living and working circumstances. We cannot agree more with Khandelwal when he remarks that in line with the United Nations (U. N.) Sustainable Development Goals (SDP), “a society is considered civilized when it is judged by how well it looks after its disadvantaged citizens.”[2] COVID-19 might be yet another opportunity for us to do so, before it is too late. The world is well aware by now about the shockingly tragic incident in Aurangadabad, when 16 migrant workers were overrun by a goods train when they were resting alongside the railway track.[7] Some of us, who are safely sheltered in our “social distancing,” might be too naïve to question the choice of the resting place of these unlucky “migrant workers” and blame their idiosyncrasy as a reason for their untimely and painful death. What the society however fails to realize is that for years together the train of “discrimination” has been running them down under the tracks of its so-called “civilization,” as they lose their lives and livelihood every other day. Humanity, collectivism, and care are the common tools required to fight a global crisis, as much as biological cures or vaccines. Societal as well as administrative apathy toward the impoverished only add to their misery, which in turn can turn back on us at a large. Unfortunately, it required a microscopic (COVID-19) virus to open our “blindfolded” eyes!

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Camus A. La Peste (The Plague). New York: Vintage; 1947.  Back to cited text no. 1
Khandelwal SK. Debating the process, impact and handling of social and health determinants of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indian J Soc Psychiatr 2020: 36 (Suppl);S64-S83.  Back to cited text no. 2
Tumbe C. India Moving: A History of Migration. New Delhi: Penguin Random House India Private Limited; 2018. pp. 112.  Back to cited text no. 3
Chandrasekhar S, Sharma A. Urbanization and spatial patterns of internal migration in India. Spatial Demography 2015;3:63-89.  Back to cited text no. 4
Bhugra D, Jones P. Migration and mental illness. Advances Psychiatr Treat 2001;7:216-2.  Back to cited text no. 5
Srivastava R. The Hindu. May 4 2020. Available from: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/no-relief-for-the-nowhere-people/article31495460.ece. [Last accessed on 2020 Jun 08].  Back to cited text no. 6


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