A World Turned Upside Down: COVID19, Poverty, and Older People In Chennai, An Indian Metropolis

While the general expectation is that COVID19 will run wild through the high-density, low-income settlements inhabited by Chennai’s economically marginalised, what is also being seen is a great deal of suffering due to the impact of the virus. This suffering is observed in the deepening impoverishment and changing intergenerational relations that is forcing some older people into greater dependency while marginalising others into depleting economic engagements.

Currently, the greatest threat for people living in low-income settlements is the COVID19-related impacts. First, India is a highly segregated society. Segregated by class, caste and labour conditions, in which 90% of workers have no rights, and are mostly employed on daily wages. There are few points of contact that would provide person-to-person spread between slum dwellers and the ‘flying classes’ who brought the disease to India on flights from Wuhan, UAE, Italy and so on. Further, the longstanding stigmatization of slum dwellers and low caste people as sources of contagion, which underpins widespread human rights abuses in India, meaning that the people most likely to be carrying the disease, the middle classes, shut off all contact with those least likely to have it—slum dwellers.


Second, India implemented a lockdown on the 25 March, when it only had 519 cases, quarantining tourists, banning international commercial flights and suspending train services. Third, it established Containment Zones for any buildings or areas with one or more confirmed cases. Containment is backed up with targeted testing and tracing. As of 29 April, there are 170 containment zones across India and 1075 deaths. In these zones no one can leave their homes and groceries are delivered through government channels.


The lockdown and containment are stringently policed, often heavy-handily. For most of the urban poor Covid-19 has brought their economic lives to a standstill. Research undertaken in five Chennai slums between 2007-10, including the 2008 international banking crisis, that translated into a significant economic slowdown in Chennai, is instructive. Chennai’s labour market is segregated by age, gender and education, and has until now provided considerable economic space for older people, who occupied the areas of the economy that younger people had vacated for higher status, easier conditions and better pay. Young people from low-income households tend to work in locations seen as modern, in shopping malls, driving taxis, on large building sites and in factories as well as domestic work. Middle-aged and older women tend to be self-employed, hawking goods, trading as pavement vendors in street markets. Middle-aged men drive auto-rickshaws, older men work as security, security guards and cycle-rickshaw pullers. The building sites, shopping malls and factories have shut. People servicing the ‘balcony class’, many of whom now work from home, have been told to stay away. What remains open as sources of work for slum dwellers?

Subsidised, Amma canteens, mostly staffed by middle-aged women, hospital work for young women, street markets which provided the main arena of work for older women selling greens, vegetables and flowers and some associated transport work for older men as market porters, rickshaw pullers and auto-drivers. People on low, insecure, daily incomes do not earn enough to save. There is no question that after five weeks without work everyone in Chennai’s low-income settlements, whose nutritional status would not have been good, anaemia and malnutrition being endemic, will have cut food expenditures to the bone - commonly to one small carbohydrate meal a day and fermented rice water, which people resort to when they have nothing else. Protein and vegetables will be rare, especially if people are trading pulses for rice to put more food on the plate.


Beyond this, the wider context impinges on people’s health and capacity to seek healthcare. Water shortages and temperatures ranging from 34 degree Celsius to 40 degree Celsius contribute to dehydration and heatstroke. Free health services are centrally located, hence inaccessible for most people, while private doctors and medication need to be paid for. All this in a context where male slum dwellers already have a life expectancy of 5 years less than non-slum, reflecting globally established social gradients in morbidity and mortality. Slum residents will have lost assets, being unable to redeem pawned items, and will be working their way through what assets that remain, a steel cooking vessel, a sari. Many will have nothing to pawn and unless they have a regular pension to back a loan, will not be able to get credit for food or even minor pharmacy expenses. They will not be able to pay or collect rents, creating a range of problems for renters but also for people, particularly older single women, who sub-divide their dwelling for an income. Most importantly, the family, neighbour and kin networks on which older and younger depend to reduce poverty risks will be unable to help them.


For the urban poor starvation, uncared for sickness and deepening vulnerability are currently the greatest dangers they face; these will drive them back into finding work, often servicing those classes and sectors who comprise the current pool in which COVID-19 swims. This will bring the virus to the slums. It will happen for two reasons. First, the competition for work will necessitate a rapid re-establishment of prior economic relations. Second is the paucity of government provision. The government provided basic rations of no-cost rice, pulses, oil and sugar and Rs1000 to the poorest ration cardholders. The Government also paid Rs1,000 payments to members of the unorganised sector Welfare Boards, whose coverage of the targeted population is poor and random and to registered pavement vendors, yet most older vendors are not registered. The Old Age Pension is Rs1,000 per month for the proportion of qualifying people who receive this provision, capped well below the numbers who need it. What does Rs1000 amount to? Thirteen years ago rents in Chennai’s slum settlements were commonly between Rs600-Rs1250 per month. In 2007, for Rs600 it was just possible to rent a run-down, thatched hut big enough to roll out two single person mats on to a bare mud floor, no light, no water, no toilet. In 2020, a one-off payment of Rs1000 for a lockdown that would last six or more weeks is gestural politics. Street markets and associated activities represent a key self-organising arena of essential economic activity, largely abandoned by young people and overlooked by the State, has until now provided opportunities for older people to work in a context in which state welfare provision is derisory and coverage random, being primarily aimed at vote banking rather than welfare. The question is whether current government organizing of vegetable distribution in Containment Zones and relocation of wholesale markets will generate long-term attempts to relocate and license trading.


Experience has demonstrated that in those contexts, ageist norms are used to lock older people, particularly older women, out of their livelihood. There is a danger that older people will be displaced in markets by younger people, either their younger family members or via market organisers, thereby forcing them into greater poverty and dependency - assuming that they have people on whom they can become dependent. In this world turned upside down, the poor are, currently, much more at risk from excess, COVID-related deaths than COVID-19 itself. Loss of health, assets, jobs, housing and the disruption of social and economic networks beyond their settlements are the immediate impacts of lockdown. There will be mid and long term impacts. At best mid-term impacts will be relatively short-lived, requiring greater labour force participation for everyone in low-income settlements - but not the ‘pull your socks up’ participation that neo-liberal economists like to think will raise household incomes. People of all ages and abilities will be forced onto the labour market, lowering pay rates. Older women and men, a higher percentage of whom are already in paid work more than people aged 15-19, will be forced into more body depleting hours and conditions on less pay, in a context in which ageism in employment and wages is well established. Family and kin networks will develop holes due to the underlying health conditions, deepening nutritional deficits and untreated morbidity under COVID conditions and directly from COVID-19 if it gets into the slums. Tamil Nadu is a state with a comparatively low fertility rate. COVID direct and indirect consequences will sharpen the long term risks of reducing the size of family networks in the context of weak state support. Older people with small, depleted or no family, with no or inadequate pensions or who have lost work will find their capacity to cater for themselves or to rely on others significantly constrained. They could well become even more tied into impoverished family networks that increasingly depend on older people’s inputs. There is no getting away from the need for a realistic income for all people over age 60 and a pension programme that guarantees such. Irrespective of whether COVID-19 finds its way into Chennai’s low-income settlements or not, excess COVID-related deaths are a certainty. Whether they will ever be recognized as such will come down to politics

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