India, a country home to 1.4 billion people, has experienced a somewhat delayed onset of COVID-19 cases. Reasons for this continue to puzzle world experts, however, in light of what much of the rest of the world was experiencing, Prime Minister Modi decided to implement a nationwide lockdown on 24th March. But what does exercising a nationwide lockdown mean for a country that struggles to support its citizens on a daily basis never mind in the midst of a worldwide catastrophe?
When looking at India’s COVID figures, you might jump to the conclusion that the situation isn’t that bad. The WHO reported on 30th April that India’s figures stood at 33,050 people affected with 1074 fatalities. The incidence and death rates seem to be low given its large population. However, these figures may be a gross underestimate of the true number of infected individuals. Among the reasons for the underreporting of figures include: a lack of testing kits, closure of local clinics due to an inability to provide personal protective equipment to staff, a fear of leaving the house to seek medical attention and a general lack of access to healthcare facilities. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that in a country with a population growth rate that has surpassed that of China’s, and where its citizens occupy overcrowded urban neighbourhoods, disease is likely running rife.
Taking a closer look at one of these densely populated areas is the Kalwa slum, located just shy of Mumbai’s bustling centre. I shall never forget the first time I arrived in Kalwa: children playing with flies outside their makeshift classroom, open sewers replete with diseased rats, women juggling kilos of rice on their heads as they weave in and out of the labyrinth-like alleyways. In Kalwa, entire families live in squalor in man-made corrugated one-room huts. Each day, its inhabitants must leave Kalwa in search of work in order to earn a $2 daily salary that will allow them to feed the mouths of their loved ones.
Kalwa’s 200,000 strong community is not at all unique. Sadly, the lack of job security and a perilous “hand to mouth” existence is a daily reality for India’s poorest. For these communities, the initiation of the lockdown is a calamity. Men and women are barred from going out to find work and with no savings, millions of Indians have found themselves unable to feed their families and have been left to starve. With these restrictions in force, morbidity and mortality rates will inevitably worsen. So for many of India’s poorest citizens, this is the ultimate irony, rather than giving them protection, this lockdown may in itself amount to a death sentence.
At the forefront of efforts to mitigate the current situation in the Kalwa slums is Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM), a grassroots non-profit organisation, which, when not in the midst of a pandemic, provides education, nourishment, and healthcare facilities to the people of Kalwa. As of recently, they have had to within a short time, transform their services to cater to the vulnerable and poor not only in Kalwa, but also in similar adjacent villages and shantytowns. Gabriel Project Mumbai has already delivered food packages to 470 starving families, with another 1000 families awaiting aid. Director and founder of Gabriel Project Mumbai, Jacob Sztokman said that they have been able to supply basic groceries to those who have no other way of acquiring food. Food packages include the basics: beans, flour, rice, oil as well as wood for cooking.
To prevent COVID-19 from running rife throughout the slums and villages, GPM has also initiated a campaign that has already distributed over 50,000 bars of soaps with educational flyers explaining proper hand hygiene techniques and information about COVID-19. They have installed handwashing stations at 3 COVID-19 designated rural hospitals and disseminated 25 litres of hand sanitiser. GPM has also employed local women to sew washable face masks to ensure that doctors and nurses have at least some basic protective equipment.
It is quite incredible how a small NGO like GPM can rapidly adapt its services in the midst of the COVID crisis. However, there are millions of people living in poverty in India – a number too high for many NGO’s to manage. It is in countries like India, where the impact of the COVID-19 takes on a whole new meaning where so many of its citizens live a hand to mouth existence. The question therefore is, is the government’s multibillion-dollar relief package trickling down to India’s poorest? And if it is not, is it feasible to allow a regulated number of India’s poorest to go out and find work, or is that too risky? The Indian government is faced with a Catch 22 situation to leave their most vulnerable citizens to die of a viral disease or to allow them to die of starvation.
To find out more about the incredible work GPM is doing or to donate please visit: www.gabrielprojectmumbai.org