Despite the Worth Health Organization declaring a “public health emergency of international concern” over the coronavirus, I haven’t actually heard much about it in my daily activities in Lucknow. When a coworker coughs, I may hear a joke cracked or “Stay away from me!” shouted in jest. I haven’t observed any serious preparation by my host organization or by municipal public services so far.
Fulbright scholars in South Korea were recently offered early departure, and study abroad students in Italy, Japan, and Korea have been sent home or had their programs canceled. The AIF Fellows are keeping a close eye on the situation and wondering about our future and how this may affect the final months of our Fellowship.
As a professional, I’m interested in public health and equitable economic development. That being said, I’m living in India during a fascinating moment.
Back home in the US, the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates to address the economic effects of Coronavirus. President Trump is also calling for a one-year payroll tax cut. Such fiscal stimulus policies aim to make it easier for people and businesses to borrow and spend money, and they’re common actions when an economic downturn is anticipated.
However, the real economic danger from Coronavirus is a disruption to international supply chains. The US economy is heavily linked with global markets, and sectors like manufacturing, technology, and agriculture are particularly tied to China.
The Reserve Bank of India has yet to lower interest rates in response to the virus, with governor Shaktikanta Das citing India’s relative insulation from the “global value chain.” However, China is India’s second-biggest trade partner, and it is unlikely that India will be able to escape this public health emergency without experiencing any economic disruption.
There are also vulnerabilities in the Indian domestic economy, and combined with gaps in the public health infrastructure, they pose serious consequences.
In the States, elected officials and public health professionals are raising flags over the 27% of workers in the US private sector who do not have paid sick leave. It’s hard to find the equivalent statistic for workers in India, but I did find that 54% of salaried employees in the non-agricultural sector are not eligible for any kind of paid leave, according to a government survey.
Reliable data for all workers in India is scarce because estimates suggest 80-90% of Indians are employed in the informal sector. However, I suspect that the percentage of Indian workers who don’t have access to paid sick leave is actually much higher than 54 percent for two reasons. First, the “gig economy” is set up such that workers are denied access to paid sick leave. (Think of companies like Uber, Ola, Swiggy, and Zomato.) Second, domestic workers like maids, cooks, drivers, handymen, childcare workers, whose services are widely utilized in Indian households, are frequently employed without benefits.
In the Indian economy, restaurants and the foodservice industry accounted for Rs. 3.7 trillion (50 billion USD) in 2018, 65-70% of which is made up of “unorganized” establishments, like dhabas, street stalls, and stand-alone shops. The food from such establishments is one of the joys of Indian culture – if your stomach can handle it, it’s usually delicious!
However, if the employees of such establishments don’t have paid sick leave, they may feel economic pressure to come to work, even if they are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Couple that with the lack of food safety regulations at informal-sector eateries, and you have a recipe for coronavirus spread.
The same could be said for retail workers, who comprise 8% of India’s labor force. They may not have access to paid sick leave, and their job requires frequent public interaction and contact with frequently touched surfaces. Do they have enough information to do their jobs safely?
Coronavirus is spread via the transmission of respiratory droplets. General prevention measures include frequent hand washing, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, and typical respiratory hygiene practices like covering one’s coughs and sneezes. Safe food preparation and hygienic eating practices are also important, as saliva could carry the virus.
Without increased caution and preventative measures, transmission amongst the general public could escalate quickly. In my own experience, I’ve observed several cultural norms that are worrisome when paired with a public health emergency. Compared to American culture, it’s much more common to share food with your friends and family, as well as share straws and drinking cups. Food is often eaten with the hands, which are washed only semi-regularly. Public spitting is also a problem, despite the threat of fines.
Some people wear face masks due to the pollution and vehicle exhaust on the roads, but the WHO reports a lack of evidence that masks are protective against the Coronavirus for people who are not already ill.
The Indian government can raise public awareness and make testing easier and more available. They could take after South Korea, which has set up drive-through testing centers. As of now, passengers on Indian domestic flights are not being screened (international passengers are being screened). Surfaces in large public areas with heavy foot traffic, like metro and railway stations, need to be disinfected frequently.
In an interview with CNBC this week, Dr. Matthew McCarthy, of New York-Presbyterian Hospital predicted that the number of US cases will grow from under 100 currently to thousands of cases in the coming weeks. In Seattle, NPR reported that the Coronavirus has likely been circulating for longer than health officials had previously realized. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar reports start coming out of Indian cities soon.
For a variety of reasons, the spread of viral disease slows down in warmer weather. From the sweat on my forehead, I can confirm that winter has officially left India. We’ll see if the spring and summer air is enough to protect the country from further spread of the Coronavirus!
This article was written on March 6, 2020.
- Jerome Powell: https://www.usnews.com/news/economy/articles/2019-12-11/powell-federal-reserve-leave-interest-rates-unchanged
- Shaktikanta Das: https://www.rediff.com/business/report/shaktikanta-das-impresses-first-rbi-board-meeting/20181215.htm
- Map: https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-update-new-cases-death-toll-us-china-italy-south-korea-europe-1490434
- All other pictures were taken by the author.