India’s Covid-19 death toll on the morning of 13 April is 331. As India extends the lockdown in a modified form for another two weeks, here’s another statistic we need to think about: at least 195 people have died of the lockdown.
Had the lockdown been better planned and more judiciously thought out, many of these lives could have been saved.
The dataset of 195 deaths (and counting) has been created by researchers Thejesh GN, Kanika Sharma and Aman. It has been collected from credible news or social media reports from across India, many of which are listed on this Twitter thread.
The human cost of lockdown
Of these, 53 deaths were caused by exhaustion, hunger, denial of medical care, or suicides due to lack of food or livelihood.
At least seven people were killed in violent crimes, such as people turning into vigilantes and attacking others for violating the lockdown.
Migrant labourers wanting to return home were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres on highways that speeding vehicles were expecting to be empty. At least 35 migrants were accidentally run over.
It is well known that alcoholics can die of delirium tremens, withdrawal symptoms or driven to suicide if suddenly denied alcohol. India’s lockdown shut all alcohol stores. At least 40 people have died or committed suicide because we don’t consider alcohol as an essential commodity.
Another 39 people have committed suicide because they feared getting the coronavirus infection, thanks to the panic created by the lockdown, or because of loneliness or being quarantined. Yet another 21 deaths were caused for miscellaneous reasons.
These are just the reported deaths, the real numbers would likely be much higher.
Dying to prevent coronavirus deaths
Take a moment to think about the absurdity of this: Indians died due to measures that were meant to save them from dying.
It is clear that the lockdown is being extended, though thankfully it seems it will be more nuanced, targeting hotspots differently from other areas that haven’t seen any Covid-19 positive cases yet. There is likely to be limited opening up of the economy. These efforts will remain risky considering we still aren’t testing aggressively enough.
If the Narendra Modi government had prepared early on, starting in February, for aggressive testing, indigenously made testing kits, had manufactured more PPEs at war footing instead of exporting what we had, we wouldn’t have needed a mindless lockdown.
The harshest lockdown in the world that closes public transport, trains and flights, prevents people from travelling for emergency reasons, and makes it difficult for people to even feed themselves — this isn’t the humane way to deal with a national health crisis.
What’s the point of living?
The lockdown is meant to save our lives from the coronavirus. But for some, it made life so difficult that surviving the virus was pointless. They took their own lives.
One such person was Rambhavan Shukla, 52, who hung himself from a tree branch because he couldn’t find labour to harvest the wheat crop on his farm in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. Instead of facing a year of financial ruin, he cut short the misery.
Another example is that of Aldrin Lyngdoh, a young man from Meghalaya who was sacked and kicked out by a restaurant he worked at in Agra. In his suicide note, he said the owners of the restaurant, which is ironically named Shanti Food Centre, knew they could get away with anything since one of their relatives is a minister in the UP government.
Lyngdoh committed suicide because he was an orphan with no one to look after him, and nowhere to go. Not that he could have managed to reach Meghalaya amid the lockdown even if there was someone there to support him.
Before the virus can kill you, there’s the police
What sort of a pandemic-prevention lockdown makes it difficult for people to get medical help? Enforced by the trigger-happy police officers through lathis, this lockdown has been so cruel it wouldn’t even let ambulances pass in some places, such as in Mangaluru, where two people died as a result.
In Maharashtra, the police assaulted an ambulance driver for allegedly ferrying passengers rather than patients. The officers took a bribe and let the ambulance go to the hospital so that the driver could be treated for assault injuries. The driver died anyway. He was hit hard on the head with a lathi.
These Manto-esque incidents make you wonder if this lockdown was about saving lives or just asserting the might of the state on hapless citizens?
A 29-year-old Dalit man returned from Gurgaon to his village in Uttar Pradesh. He claimed he had undergone a Covid-19 test and had tested negative. He was still humiliated and beaten up by a police constable so badly that he committed suicide. Who needs the coronavirus?
All other patients are free to die
As our healthcare system gears up to save lives from Covid-19, people unable to use that system or see through a brutal lockdown may please go home and die anyway.
In Madhya Pradesh, a state without a health minister amid a pandemic, a hospital set up to help the victims of the continuing Bhopal gas tragedy kicked out the very patients it was meant to serve. The hospital was readying itself for Covid-19 patients. Munni Bee, 68, died for want of care. No other hospital would take her.
It’s as if India is already making the dark choices about which lives it wants to save and which lives are expendable. What cause of death makes for headlines less troubling for the political establishment? Which statistic should be allowed to rise?
Let them eat lockdown
It is a shame that in a food surplus country, we let people die of starvation, such as these two people in Bellary, Karnataka; or this 11-year-old Dalit boy in Bhojpur, Bihar; or this daily wage labourer in Cyberabad, whose body was found by the police.
Not everyone waited for starvation to kill them; some cut short the agony with suicide, like Sagar Deogharia in Odisha. The government is carrying out a “detailed probe into the incident,” of course.
The lockdown has meant there is no work for daily wagers, and hence no food. So they travelled back home where getting food might have been easier. Some died just trying to reach home. Like a group of migrant labourers in Jammu and Kashmir died of the cold, their bodies found under five feet of snow. They took a dangerous mountainous route to reach home thanks to the lockdown.
Footnotes of history
If the lockdown continues in its present form, it is bound to kill more people — through starvation, unemployment, stigma, government indifference, and police brutality.
But the government doesn’t have to worry much: these are poor, voiceless people whose deaths will be reported as stray incidents. Nobody will light diyas or bang pots and pans in their honour. They are collateral damage in the war against coronavirus.
They won’t even count as footnotes in the history of India’s response to the pandemic. Unless you can find a Muslim-bashing angle, these lives aren’t outrage material on prime time.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.