Co-authored with Deepika Saluja
The world is going through tough times with the pandemic Covid-19, which has infected over 14,41,128 people and killed 82,992 people in the past 4 months. In India, after receiving cases from international travel (Stage I), the infection is now spreading locally (Stage II) at a faster rate, with the reported number of cases at 5,194 and death toll at 149, as on 8th April, 2020 morning. Although these are hugely underestimated figures, the rate of reported cases and deaths have exponentially increased in a week’s time. Further, not everyone who is asymptomatic to Covid-19 is getting tested, as India doesn’t have sufficient testing kits available along with limited resources in terms of beds, ventilators, health care staff, medical supplies and laboratory strength, among others.
Dreading to enter stage III of community transmission, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi declared a country-wide lockdown for 21 days starting from 25th March, as a preventive measure. The public, as well as private transportation services, have been temporarily suspended to stop population movement across the country and state borders have been sealed. Anticipating shortage in supply of goods as a result of sealed borders and lockdown, people jammed up at nearby grocery stores and supermarkets to stock up their daily supplies, defeating the purpose of physical distancing needed to maintain to contain the spread. Thus, in order to respond to this panic buying and crowding behavior of the public, the government released a list of essential (products and) services that will remain operational during the lockdown, and wherever possible, will be made available at the doorstep.
The release of this list eventually also determined the status of many factories and production units, shutting down the production of items that did not make it to the essentials’ list. Interviews conducted by Bloomberg Quint with owners and officials of various consumer goods companies revealed that their factories and production plants are running at a much-reduced capacity, as low as 10-20% in some cases. This is also related to these plants getting the necessary permissions, required human resources and sufficient raw materials to continue their production processes, all of them have been severely affected by the lockdown and its accompanying restrictions.
Further, a closer look at the essentials’ list for Covid-19 lockdown reflects the absence of hygiene and menstrual products for women, which like other items are expected to run out of stock. As per NFHS 4 data, approximately 56 percent of menstruators in India use hygienic sanitary items, including locally prepared sanitary pads (16%), commercial sanitary pads (42%), and tampons (2%) in combinations. On raising concerns over the absence of sanitary hygiene products, the essentials list has now been expanded to include them along with other sanitation products.
As reported by Bloomberg Quint, it might take 3-4 days to resume the manufacturing of sanitary napkins (although still at reduced capacities to ensure physical distancing), followed by another week or so to ensure supplies in the market. The absence of these items on the essentials’ list in the first place reflects misplaced priorities of the government. This is particularly important when we have community health workers, nurses, doctors (largely women) working at the frontline in long duty hours, providing them access to free menstrual products at their health care centers, become very crucial here.
Further, merely ensuring the supplies of these sanitation products will not be sufficient.
The lockdown has significantly impacted the financial capacities of households, particularly from low-income groups (like migrant workers, daily wage laborers, etc.). Shut down (although temporary) of factories and establishments employing casual and informal labor has resulted in a wave of mass unemployment in the unskilled/less-skilled labor market, leaving them with limited or almost no disposable income.
Scared of dying of hunger than from Covid-19 infection, lakhs of people were observed crossing state borders, ready to walk miles to reach back their native hometowns. For such population groups, the foremost priority would be to feed their families and survive through this crisis, than to focus on hygiene. With limited financial resources, purchasing hygiene-related products would be the last thing on their minds, forcing them (including women) to shift to relatively unhygienic methods of sanitation.
Further, with around 344 million practicing open defecation and more than 163 million people with no access to clean water, it is too tall a call for India’s population to regularly wash their hands and maintain hygiene in their day to day activities, without making any effort on those lines, particularly for the vulnerable groups. For example, open defecation and fetching water for the family from faraway places, expose them to risks of physical attacks, harassment and rapes, more so for ones living in informal settlements, refugee camps, etc.
Thus, ensuring equitable access to clean and safe water and sanitation facilities should equally be on the government’s priority in its fight against Covid-19 spread, not only for India but also for various Lower-and-Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) struggling with water and sanitation crises.
Deepika is a Ph.D. in Public Health Policy from IIM Ahmedabad, India (2018). With an interdisciplinary background through science, management, and policy degrees, her interests span across different areas of public health, humanitarian issues and the environment with a special interest in using the gender and governance lens in all these sectors. Deepika is also the co-founder of Women in Global Health-India Chapter and is currently working as an independent consultant. You can find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Quartz