Are the coronavirus warriors losing their own personal battles?

My dad’s close contacts with an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) allowed me to get in touch with a slightly reserved Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker, living in the shanty suburbs of Faridabad, Haryana who have been selflessly conducting door-to-door surveys during this mammoth pandemic. “We are roped in to track vaccination schedules and lactating mothers and now, Covid-19 data collection. I have 1,300 people in my anganwadi and I get paid ₹6,500 a month. This is less than the minimum wage which is about ₹300 a day. I don’t mind working but at least I should get paid well,” she disappointedly expresses, on condition of anonymity. At the heart of such workers is indignation, and rage, about the ongoing injustice against them.

Neo-classical Labor economics[1] is a broad theory that focuses on supply and demand as driving forces behind the production, pricing, and consumption of goods and services. Simply put, it states that with a frictionless labour market, the equilibrium wage of a job is equal to the social value of its marginal production, on the ‘assumptions’ that employers are profit-maximisers and wage-takers, accepting wages as decided by the market. However, painfully, it’s no surprise that the theory and ground reality today are starkly different. The domino effect of coronavirus has invited massive fears among people, a worldwide pause on around one-third of the world economy, but more significantly, a shifted focus to confront the irony of labelling workers as “essential” and their limited wages, monetary benefits and ability to organize. The social value of workers like medical staff, police, grocery store clerks, sanitation workers, child care providers, vegetable sellers etc is higher than ever. However, these categories of employees have found themselves in a situation where the health risk they have been facing exceeds their daily remunerations.

Unbeknown to most, the trend in recent decades towards subcontracting has been a substantial cause of economic inequality and second-class citizenship in the workforce in our country. Dependencies in the economy aggravate the uncertainty risks that impermanent workers face. Reports from states like Uttar Pradesh have revealed that around 19,000 ambulance staff have been unpaid for three months, with a crippling shortage of safety gear, facing the brunt of parochial attitudes of the government – as most of them are on-contract and not employed directly by their state government[2]. Depending on who the contractor is, everybody has had a vastly different experience. In the case of sanitation, gross vulnerability and exploitation, with cases of “corona warriors” in medical universities of Lucknow[3] boycotting work due to non-payment of wages highlight their grim treatment.

It doesn’t stop at this. Despite surging demand, doctors, paramedical staff and community workers, who toil on the frontlines have been severely underpaid. Some 900,000 female community ASHA workers and early childhood caregivers (anganwadi workers), who form the backbone of the country have been grossly underpaid, ill-prepared and vulnerable to attacks and social stigma. Statistically, each worker is being paid a meagre ₹ 30 daily for putting their life into danger, to avoid the virus travelling into the deep interiors of India’s rural community[4].

Additionally, marginalisation and neglect of India’s nursing population has also been acutely manifested against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis. The troubling ratio of nurses to the population in the nation stands at 1.7 nurses per thousand people, which is well short of the WHO’s recommended 3 nurses per thousand people. With nurses working at laughable pay scales in the private sector with no social security, it is no surprise that despair and frustration engulf the healthcare sector. Under the umbrella of the controversial Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 that emphasises the power of the government, but remains silent on the rights of the citizens, countless doctors have been allegedly harassed by the police and threatened by the state. With doctors wrestling with the choice to work or protect their family against the risk of coronavirus, overburdened hours and stagnant fees have worsened their conditions. This new ‘pandemic world’ mushrooming with empirical evidence of the undervalued treatment of essential workers has once again put the theory of economics to trial.

What can be done? Both short-term and long-term policies to maximise all citizens’ well-being by adopting citizen-centric policies are crucial. Here’s a proposal of a special COVID-19 cost-benefit analysis framework of wage determination for such extraordinary times:
Adjusted wages = Benefits of working – Costs of working
It is obvious that total containment is impossible – certain essential activities in sectors like agriculture, sanitation activities, and of course, the healthcare sector need to be maintained. The costs of attending work for everyone would be the possibility of becoming a vector of transmission of virus but if the societal benefits of certain employees exceed their costs, adjusted wage payments should be made accordingly. For doctors, paramedical staff, police, sanitation workers or scientist in search of a vaccine, there is no debate that insurance payments, bonuses for additional working hours etc should be provided. Economic analysis has always revealed the strength of effective incentive mechanisms and this tool should be aggressively exploited in the current situation to respect the front-line workers. The best practices of countries like Sweden where dozens of medical workers in Stockholm are earning 220% of their salaries due to an emergency agreement between the medical unions and employers need to be adopted[5], and the current insurance schemes of ₹ 50 lakh recently announced to compensate for only the death of medical workers, and not for falling ill or getting hospitalised should be revalued. And after this, continuing the nationwide recognition of work and palpable tributes to front-line workers echoing the world are also complementary and welcome steps in the right direction.

For too long, economists have mostly considered work and wages in terms of profit and not in terms of society. What is left unheard amidst the boisterous headlines in this crisis highlighting the eyepopping falls in traditional metrics like G.D.P. and stock market indices, is a more profound narrative that needs to be written: Will our long-overdue recognition of the contributions of such workers be limited to transient applauses and widespread social media movements, or will it move us one step towards real socio-economic policies ensuring equity and economic dignity for all? Coronavirus should force us to rethink who we valued in the past, who we value today and how. Some of the workers we have always left to languish in underpaid and unstable jobs are the very ones we have realised we literally cannot live and breathe without. It’s not just time to be grateful. It’s time to make amends.


Himanshi Goel
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Himanshi Goel is pursuing Masters in Economics from the Delhi School of Economics. She has a keen interest in the socio-economic policy space and gender issues.

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