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Class and Gender Crisis in the wake of COVID-19

In the wake of any pandemic or health crisis, the government rolls out the decision to shut down schools and public places, advisories are released. Special care and attention to children and aged people is advised by the doctors and health experts. Similar circumstances emerged recently due to the outbreak of COVID-19 or coronavirus. The virus spread through human contact and therefore, the government of most of the States declare a health emergency and shut down schools and public places, advised people to stay at home unless something urgent and important crops us.

As per the reports, it is found that people with already failing health and weak immune system are the major targets of this virus. Not everyone can afford masks, tissues and hand sanitizers, especially when the demand has superseded the supply in the free market scenario. The pandemics and diseases in general and Coronavirus in specific do not hit everyone equally. You would ask why. You might wonder how can a virus discriminate. But it does. Let's analyse how.

Class differential
People belonging to lower class/lower income groups find it difficult to make their ends meet and afford a two square meal let alone a healthy and nutritious diet. Their daily struggle to earn enough to afford a meal for their family do not allow them to self-quarantine and isolate themselves during pandemics or sit at home during a public health emergency.

Poverty forces them to die either from the deadly disease in the short run or from hunger in the long run. A person suffering from poverty is more likely to die than the one suffering from such viruses. A person struck by poverty and shut downs is not living in this situation of COVID rather he is dying in it, more by her seized opportunity to earn a day's meal for her family.

Most of these people belong to blue-collar job/ unorganized sector wherein these shut downs are not acknowledged and recognized. Only on the ground of their class, these people are being exposed to the risk of this deadly virus. The conferences and meetings can be organized online but the type of work/jobs these people do cannot be done remotely or from the comfort of their homes.

They do not have the liberty to choose their mode of transportation, they have to ‘choose' the cheapest that is bus which is crowded. Not everyone can afford to travel by private cars or cabs. The students, who have been given the option to study virtually using their laptops and computers, can everyone afford a laptop to access course material and replace classroom teaching?

Such people, usually, live in slums or a locality which is too far from being hygienic and sanitized. How will a one-room apartment allow them to stay aloof from the family member experiencing symptoms of the virus?

Or how will their job, working as garbage person, domestic help, manual scavenger, petty street hawkers, et Cetra, allow to be not exposed to the risk of contracting the virus. Even a single day of mandatory shut down of nation will kick their stomachs for a long time and the non-shutting will expose them severely to this deadly virus. People belonging to a higher class would more or less stay unaffected with the shutdown but what about people on the other side of this divide?

Gender Differential
Women and trans-persons are at the highest risk of being diagnosed with such fatal diseases and pandemics. Women and trans-persons are placed on a different level in the prevailing society setup. Women and men have different status within the household as well as in the community, different cultural norms, different nutrition intake and accessibility to health care and support from family. These factors influence the exposure to the virus and medical care and treatment thereof. Women, as a gender, are associated with household work, petty jobs such as domestic help, babysitting, care-giving to elderly, aged or ill persons, sweepers, et Cetra.

These jobs, again, as in the case of class, do not recognize or acknowledge shutdowns. While women working in the organized sector/ white-collar jobs would be required to work from home. It is not as simple as it sounds. Shutting down of schools and offices would mean the children, partner (husband) would be home too. In a society set up like ours, totally based on fixed gender roles, not only socially but legally too, which is reflected in a catena of judgments on gender issues, women are expected to take care of their domestic/family duties before their professional duties.

Women and trans-persons have a lower status in the community when it comes to health care, they ignore their health due to different restrains until the death almost arrives. Lack of proper diet, especially when they belong to a lower class, which is almost always in the case of trans-persons. In fact, in the case of trans-persons, many a time, it is reported that hospitals and medical practitioners deny treatment only on the ground of their sex/sexual orientation.

The accessibility to medical health care, which is the foremost requirement in case of a pandemic such as COVID-19 is least in the case of the “second” and “third” gender (if this is what NALSA v. Union of India meant while recognizing trans-persons as the third gender, the ranking within the gender regime). What mode of transportation do you think a [Indian] woman with less economic resources would prefer despite the risk when the free bus ride scheme is in action? How is a woman suppose to not take care of ‘her' children or in-laws or partner when they are diagnosed with the virus?

Will society allow her to isolate herself totally? How is a woman or a trans-person suppose to overcome financial restrains to support their treatment? How is a woman going to support her children in the case of mandatory shut down? Who is going to provide her with the care and support when she is diagnosed with the deadly virus? Who will run the household? Who will do the work for which she is not even acknowledged (neither by society nor by GDP)? Who will provide support to that transgender who was anyway ostracized by the society?

And what does the government should do to support its people? It should suspend all mortgages and household bills until people can go back to work. THAT is taking care of your citizens. Imagine being sick (or not sick), locked up in your home, unable to go to work (or anywhere) and you also had to worry about how you are going to pay your bills?

These questions, especially in the Indian context, bring us to a standstill and force us to think. They pose a totally different picture of the community we live in. Our privileges, though we hardly acknowledge, do keep us away from situations, they do prevent us from viewing the different landscape of the issues. The framework discussed is although same in every State, however, the level of the divide may differ.

Written By: Aastha Khanna (Law Student, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi) 

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