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COVID-19 and Social Unrest: Meeting the Challenges

Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 13, 2020

    Summary: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought in its wake one of the most serious humanitarian challenges that the world has witnessed. As a result, the social and economic upheaval is likely to have far-reaching consequences. This brief assesses the same from the perspective of disruption caused in the lives of urban migrant workers. This is often aggravated by disinformation at a time when social media has become one of the most common sources of information. This can cause disruption weakening the ongoing efforts to minimise the adverse impact of the pandemic. The brief further suggests measures to improve management of migrant movement and the information dissemination chain.

    COVID-19 has caused large scale social and economic disruption. The regressive impact of the pandemic can create adversative conditions of discontentment, which if not addressed pre-emptively, or at least as a reaction to the emerging situation, can lead to social unrest. This issue brief highlights the twin challenges of dealing with social unrest caused by the movement of urban migrant workers and the threat emanating from disinformation. It concludes by suggesting some measures to deal with these challenges more effectively as part of the ongoing national effort to fight the pandemic.

    Plight of Urban Migrant Workers

    India’s urban areas present a contrarian economic reality. While a large number of cities are regularly rated high on the per capita scale, these numbers can be mistaken for universally high levels of affluence.1 Instead, the very high-income levels of the ultra-rich obfuscate the reality of low-income groups, and worse, the poor standards of civic amenities of the urban poor compounded by an unreliable source of income, even if it is marginally higher than in rural areas.2 The attraction of higher incomes encourages these workers to live under difficult conditions.3 However, this becomes unsustainable when the source of income is severed, as seen recently in response to preventive measures undertaken to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

    A report on the condition of urban migrants in Bengaluru in 2016 indicated that in that city alone, there were over 120,000 migrants, working approximately at a monthly wage of Rs. 10-12,000. They work at construction sites and live in unhygienic, temporary, makeshift shelters with no employee benefits offered to them.4 The 2001 Census indicated that 370 million migrants were working away from their place of birth.5 This number is likely to have gone up since. A large number of these people are residing in urban areas, which presents a peculiar set of challenges during pandemics. This includes factors like reliance on daily wages or low skill jobs in factories and businesses. It implies that any serious impact on the social and economic stability of a region can disrupt the earning capacity of these people.

    In addition to this segment, there is a section of temporary ad hoc workers who form a large part of the urban poor in cities. Being permanent residents, they have little option but to stay in these urban centres. Their economic condition during times of duress is similar to those of migrant workers, except that they have places of residence, often in slums within cities. While this does not require them to move, yet the loss of jobs creates extreme financial stress. Francesco Rocca, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) societies, as part of a United Nations press briefing, pointed out that a large number of marginalised people living in cities are a ‘social bomb that can explode at any moment …’6

    With the imposition of a precautionary lockdown, which was possibly the best alternative under the conditions, most businesses have stopped their operations, factories have come to a halt and activities like construction and tilling of farm have stopped. Even as a small section of employees working in the government sector and at residential areas were guaranteed their income, others in the unorganised sector do not have the same protection. This led to some of them attempting to move en masse to their villages, despite intercity public transport not being available. The resultant situation raised concerns of sustenance and the possible transmission of the virus during the transit phase. In certain cases, it also resulted in clashes with the police, further leading to law and order conditions. The case of approximately 500 textile workers in Surat is an example of this situation.7 Unlike this group, which was stopped, a very large number of migrant workers did succeed in attempting a long and arduous journey, largely on foot to their home towns from occupational hub centres like Delhi.

    The series of incidents which followed had multiple implications, both from the perspective of health and security. The uncontrolled move of migrant workers, more often than not living in close proximity to each other, without the benefit of medical tests prior to their transit, raised the possibility of COVID-19 spread. The move also placed severe physical strain, especially on women and children. Simultaneously, these incidents raise security-related issues as well.

    The immense psychological, economic and social pressure, limited job opportunities, and limited access to food and health facilities could quickly lead to a deterioration in social harmony, especially if the number of people affected by the epidemic reaches anywhere near the higher levels of projections that have been made. An estimate by an interdisciplinary team of scientists indicated the possibility of between 100,000 to 13 lakh confirmed cases by mid-May.8 The study did note that these estimates could reduce based on stricter measures taken by India.

    Spread of Disinformation

    The issue of information disruption has repeatedly emerged from crisis situations such as pandemics and natural calamities.9 This can be caused by conditions as varied as inadequate flow of information, to disinformation and misinformation. The challenge has greatly been enhanced by the reach of social media. In a recent incident, the Ukrainian town of Novi Sanzhary, which has a small population of just 8,300, witnessed fear and panic after residents received misinformation about coronavirus causing widespread deaths. This led to 24 people being arrested for rioting.10 This incident was possibly a result of disinformation on social media and a fake news campaign.

    Closer home, a similar situation played up in the National Capital Region (NCR) in the full glare of television screens. News primarily emanating from WhatsApp suggested that the lockdown relaxation for a day was done to allow people to leave the city to their hometowns and villages, along with the understanding that closure would last as long as three months. Social media inputs also indicated that power supply was likely to be cut and rations would soon exhaust.11 Such misinformation led to a large number of migrants working in NCR to panic and leave for their villages, hundreds of kilometres away, despite transportation not being available.

    Despite guidelines from both the state and central governments being disseminated on a daily basis, it is evident that there were gaps in communication at the grassroots level.12 People either did not receive the information or the information provided by the official agencies was rejected in favour of false information received through social media. Genuine concerns of the people, therefore, can get aggravated because of miscommunication or disinformation through social media. There is also a possibility of exaggerated descriptions being circulated, which can be further amplified with each stage of transmission. The end result can lead to social unrest and even serious internal security conditions.

    The Way Forward

    Effective Information Dissemination

    Any strategy aimed at ensuring social harmony would require an effective information dissemination system. First and perhaps the most important factor remains information transparency and its effective dissemination. The government has remained proactive in this regard, following the policy of daily briefs to enable the media to disseminate information.13 The MyGov Corona Newsdesk, Aarogya Setu App, regular interactions by the prime minister, chief ministers and spokespersons of the government have helped disseminate information at regular intervals.14

    In addition, it would also be useful to monitor social media, to counter the spread of rumours and misinformation. A closer interaction with social media companies could also be an effective tool to fight the disinformation campaign. It is important to consistently disseminate trusted sources of information to include government handles and pages. These sources of information can also be advertised and information provided during daily briefings of spokespersons.

    Sections of the government like the police and municipal bodies are under immense pressure at the operational end of the government’s response. However, their traditional role of remaining connected with mohallas, colony and housing society representatives can prevent the kind of situation that developed at Nizamuddin.15 The collection and synthesis of this information can allow timely dissemination of orders, which can further prevent aggravation of irresponsible behaviour.

    Contrasting measures have been adopted to ensure the implementation of rules and directions. These ranged from employing harsh measures to innovative means adopted by the police. The latter option did not only have a salutary effect within the limited scope of a situation, but its circulation through social media also earned the police respect and admiration.16 The role of disseminating such incidents, when rumours often spread faster than facts, is an important tool in the hands of the government to reinforce the faith of the people in the efforts being made by their representatives and officials.

    Managing Social Unrest

    It has been seen that migrant movement can become a serious concern for the uncontrolled spread of the COVID-19. It has simultaneously been noted that unless the immediate and mid-term concerns of people who do not have easy access to medical, financial and social security needs are met, the potential for disharmony remains a possible concern. The solution possibly lies in providing support at the grassroots level, as has been envisaged by the government.17 A large number of measures have already been initiated by the central and state governments in India.

    These include allocation of additional financial outlay to support measures announced, increasing direct transfer of financial support and ration delivery for the poor and enhancing medical support infrastructure and capacity through every organ of the government, including the armed forces, police organisations and the railways. Simultaneously, the feasibility of controlled movement of people, while ensuring safety measures during inter-city transfer, can also be explored. This can ensure that pressure cooker situations as a result of protracted closures have a safety valve.

    This is where the expertise of the Indian Army can be brought into effect. There are two major activities that the army organises. First, recruitment rallies which involve thousands of volunteers. And second, movement of convoys across the length and breadth of the country. A combination of these elements, with added medical checks prior to assembly, maintenance of social distance at assembly areas and movement in an orderly fashion can be coordinated. A similar exercise can be attempted through special trains, yet again a procedure mastered by the army over the decades.

    It is recommended that interim quarantine facilities are established prior to allowing people into their villages. It will ensure that the virus does not spread into a larger segment of society. This, however, will need to be monitored for health and hygiene standards. In this regard, the world-class camping facility created by the Uttar Pradesh Government for the Kumbh Mela suggests a rich experience that can be replicated.18

    Given the scale of the COVID-19 challenge, a graduated employment of uniformed forces to assist civil authorities must be envisaged. While their medical capacity and support is already being used, any further involvement must simultaneously remain available in terms of both men and material. This, however, must be done by ensuring that safety equipment is scrupulously used and laid down procedures followed to ensure that the possibility of virus spread amongst the support staff working in close proximity of the affected people is minimised.

    It should also be kept in mind that the security forces, which while being ready for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) support, may need more time to prepare for contingencies like establishment of makeshift hospitals, optimum levels of protective gear and earmarking formations in different geographical areas, for possible supportive roles.

    While the spread of COVID-19 is global, the focus of response has remained largely national and local. The pace of the spread of the epidemic and the resultant social and economic disruptions have proved beyond doubt that efforts aimed at curbing biological weapons further need to be strengthened.

    There will possibly be a number of cases of social unrest emerging from across the world. It would also be useful to share and analyse their triggers to facilitate better handling of issues. Sharing of experiences and best practices to strengthen the collective fight against the existing challenge posed by COVID-19 is essential.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

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