The Back Road: Far away yet close to home

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By Andrew Malekoff

I have served as editor for the quarterly professional journal Social Work with Groups since 1990.

Social work with groups or group work, as it is more commonly referred to, is a systematic way of organizing people in groups for mutual support and collective action to address and improve individual and community well-being.

As journal editor, I’ve periodically asked contributors to submit short stories as well as more customary 20-page scholarly articles, in an effort to open the door a little wider for aspiring authors to share their stories about compelling contemporary issues.

This is not to say that writing a shorter piece is an easier task than writing a longer one; however, telling stories is something we all do.

In June, I issued a request for stories on pandemic 2020. Although I expected most of the stories to come from the U.S., I was surprised that the preponderance came from India, at a rate of about one per week.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised given that India has recorded the highest daily count of Covid-19 infections for any country since the start of the pandemic. Although the U.S. still has more total cases, India is where the virus is spreading fastest.

Many of stories I received from India are about group relief efforts to provide ration kits of food and other resources for marginalized individuals, such as displaced laborers. One author, Ajay Saini, offered some context:

“The morning of March 25, 2020 dawned unlike any other day in India. The normally jam-packed cities, towns, and villages of the world’s second-most populous country were found overwhelmed by an eerie emptiness. The previous night, the Indian government had announced a coronavirus-induced nationwide lockdown, confining over a billion people to their homes. Overnight, the entire country was rife with uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. Millions of rural poor, who worked and lived precariously in the cities, felt particularly nervous as they tried to foresee their future.”

Many of the folks Saini was referring to were heading back to their native homes from the cities they had earlier migrated to for low wage labor. In another story Anand Banshkar wrote about the treacherous return home:

“People [were] struggling to come back home, but had no means of transportation. So many of the poor who were migrants working as daily wage workers started coming back on foot. Every day the newspaper was filled with stories about so many dead bodies found on the road and railway track. These were poor people.”

Some of the laborers worked in the beedi industry – tobacco manufacturing. Although beedi work is not the same as the meatpacking industry in the U.S., what it brought to mind for me were stories about the lack of protection for meatpackers and their high rate of infection. In an August 2020 Pro Publica report, a meat industry executive said, “We were probably more prepared for animal pandemic issues than we were for human pandemics.”

In another story by Saddam Ali, she spoke to the poor living conditions of the beedi laborers who returned to their native homes from the megacities of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) after the lockdown, and then felt compelled to return to unregulated home-based beedi rolling.

This work is dominated by women who lack protective gear, which increases their exposure to unburnt tobacco that they absorb in substantial levels to the degree that it shows up in their saliva and urine.

Ali observed them rolling beedi without using masks or sanitizer, as they worked in very close proximity to one another in “dark and dingy places” at the same time their children played outside the house without masks or maintaining physical distancing.

In the U.S. what we know is that under-resourced “essential” laborers such as grocery, sanitation and delivery service workers face an elevated risk of infection and often do not have the same access to testing and the ability to quarantine as essential health care workers do.

In India there is a socially stratified caste system that one is born into. The lower caste, including many described in these stories, are referred to as “untouchables”. They have little if any access to the necessary resources that are protective against health risks or essential for proper healthcare.

Reading the graphic descriptions in the stories from India makes me wonder if it is really much different here for marginalized people, even though we don’t refer to them as untouchables.

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