Amidst all the numbers I’ve seen to do with this awful pandemic there was one I found truly shocking. 122 million Indians have lost their jobs in April alone as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. That’s nearly twice the entire population of Great Britain out of work in just one month.
We spent time in the south of India – Kerala – two years ago and even though we had a really cosseted two weeks the abject poverty of most Indians was clear to see.
We stayed in mid-range hotels and were driven around from place to place by a young family man called Kannan. Each morning he arrived at our hotel bang on time looking clean and smart to take us on the next stage of our journey. It was only towards the end of our trip that we realised he spent every night sleeping in his car.
At one point when I got the inevitable Delhi Belly he was on hand to find me the medicine I need. A few days later when I’d evidently recovered he took a detour and then queued with us to get a bottle or two of wine from one of the few out-of-town licensed premises in what was a largely dry state. Nothing was too much trouble for him.
We’ve kept in touch on and off via Facebook. He’s been locked down since March 15th and is receiving income support from the government of around a quarter of his average salary.
During our increasingly in-depth conversations through our two weeks of close confinement it became apparent that his salary was nominal and that he relied almost entirely on tips to feed himself and his family.
He knows it could be years, if ever, before he gets that job back so has accepted he needs to find other work at a time when jobs are in short supply. Him and his family must be struggling right now to put food on the table and face a very uncertain future.
That 25% state support Kannan gets only applies to those who pay into the national insurance scheme. Many don’t and many only survive, at the best of times, through the day-to-day hustling that provides just enough food and some shelter.
India’s unemployment rate is now at a record high of 27.1%, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), four times that of the US.
Like much of the rest of the world its lockdown has brought most economic activity – except essential services such as hospitals, pharmacies and food supplies – to a standstill.
Scenes of desperate migrant workers, particularly daily-wage earners, fleeing cities on foot to return to their villages, filled TV screens and newspapers for most of April. Their informal jobs, which employ 90% of the population, were the first to be hit as construction stopped, and cities suspended public transport.
But protracted curfews and the continued closure of businesses – and the uncertainty of when the lockdown will end – hasn’t spared formal, permanent jobs either.
Large companies across various sectors – media, aviation, retail, hospitality, automobiles – have announced massive layoffs in recent weeks. And experts predict that many small and medium businesses are likely to shut shop altogether.
Of the 122 million who have lost their jobs, 91.3 million were small traders and labourers. But a fairly significant number of salaried workers – 17.8 million – and self-employed people – 18.2 million – have also lost work.
Here am I depressed because I can’t go to the pub, eat at a restaurant and jet off on holiday. We just don’t know the half of it.