Borders of an Epidemic: COVID-19 and Migrant Workers


This collection of essays is “part reflections, part analyses, and part reportages” on the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, with a focus on migrant workers.

The book’s editor, Ranabir Samaddar, is director at the Manahirban Calcutta Research Group, a Kolkata-based organisation that published this volume in 2020. It contains the writings of 19 contributors, including social scientists, researchers and journalists. The essays revolve around four themes: implications of the epidemic for the global economy; labour, particularly migrant labour; the ‘care economy’; and race, caste, and gender “as fault lines of protection in the time of an epidemic.”

The following are summaries of five of the publication’s 14 essays, which cover significant aspects of the pandemic’s impact on migrant labour:

Essay 1: Corona Virus and the World-Economy: The Old is Dead, the New Can’t be Born

In this piece, Ravi Arvind Palat (of the Department of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York), emphasises the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic on an ‘integrated world-economy’. During the Great Depression of 1929-33, manufacturing constituted a large share of economic output across the world, and inventories of accumulated products could be sold once economic conditions improved. Today, Palat notes, services form the bulk of economic output, and a haircut or a meal at a restaurant cannot be stored for the future. The author writes that the global financial crisis of 2008-09 left some ‘emerging market economies’ largely unscathed, but Covid-19 affects the entire planet.

Palat states that poorer countries and sections of the population are more vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19 than others. Low-income countries lack the necessary infrastructure to deal with a global pandemic, and it is hard for residents of densely populated low-income areas to practice physical distancing. Pointing to the escalation of wealth inequality around the world, Palat writes that this pandemic has laid bare the need for “a fundamental change in institutional structures of the world economy.”

Essay 2: Migrant Labor, Informal Economy, and Logistics Sector in a Covid-19 World

Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay (of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali) discusses the condition of street vendors in Chandigarh Tri-city during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Chandigarh Tri-city refers to the adjacent cities of Panchkula in Haryana, Mohali in Punjab, and the union territory of Chandigarh.) The author traces the development of the Tri-city, where real estate remained exclusively in the hands of government institutions and the ‘public-sector middle class’. The cheap labour that supported the lifestyle of the Tri-city middle class was relegated to ‘low-cost ghettos’ such as the adjacent village of Jagatpur in Punjab’s Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district. Data from 2019 shows that the residents of these ‘ghettos’ were mainly migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; entire families of migrants had settled in these neighbourhoods. As the lockdown began and migrant workers began losing jobs, a number of families from Jagatpur left for their home states.

Bandyopadhyay hypothesises that “the crisis of 2020 will hit the informal economy more dearly than the crisis of 2008-2009.” His second hypothesis is that the lockdown will adversely affect the ‘logistics sector’ and the ‘logistical city’. Referring to the writings of Karl Marx, the author notes that globally connected cities and their physical, legal, social and financial infrastructures “synchronise the gap between production and consumption” in ‘supply chain capitalism’ by coordinating variables of “territory, communication, and speed.” The author recommends that India’s 60 million tonnes of surplus food grains can be redistributed as rations; the government should implement universal basic income, healthcare and education; and there must be a short-term “revival of local and self-sufficient production and consumption networks.”

Essay 7: The Sudden Visibility of Returnee Labour

This essay by Rajat Roy (journalist and researcher at the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group) discusses the precarity and uncertainty that migrant workers have been subject to due to the abruptly announced Covid-19 lockdown. Maji Sheikh, a 44-year-old worker in Bihar’s Aurangabad district, started his journey back home to West Bengal on March 26, soon after the lockdown was announced. He and other migrants were beaten and ‘brutally treated’ by the Aurangabad police for venturing outside, whereas the Jharkhand police (en route) greeted the returning migrants with refreshments and conducted health check-ups for them. Roy notes that reverse migration and ‘social distancing’ during the lockdown have made usually ‘invisible’ migrant workers visible in two ways: first, cities and towns “have felt the absence of [these] service providers,” and second, the media’s visuals of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers walking miles on highways forced the government to arrange shelter and food for them.

Essay 8: Glimpses of Life in the Time of Corona

In this essay, Madhurilata Basu ( professor at Sarojini Naidu College, Kolkata) and Sibaji Pratim Basu (of the Department of Political Science at Kolkata’s Vidyasagar College) describe the hardships of the ‘marching migrant workers’ during the Covid-19 lockdown. They cite 2019 data collected by India Migration Now, a research organisation based in Mumbai, which speaks of the widespread apathy and discrimination against migrants by state governments.

The authors highlight incidents of xenophobia, racial profiling, and the stigmatisation and neglect of healthcare workers during the lockdown – from nurses from India’s northeast who faced derogatory remarks in Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata and other places, to landlords asking medical staff asked to vacate their houses. The piece criticises the Indian media’s ‘blatantly communal publicity’ of a congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat (a Muslim missionary movement); the gathering occurred on March 22 in Delhi, and shortly after, many of the 2,500 people who attended, tested positive for Covid-19. The pandemic, the authors state, is a missed opportunity for the “collective healing of partisan wounds.”

Essay 10: Social Distancing, ‘Touch-Me-Not’ and the Migrant Worker

This piece by Ishita Dey (a researcher at South Asian University, New Delhi) looks at ‘intimate labour’, such as domestic work, during Covid-19. It discusses already existing ‘social codes of distancing’ between employers and domestic workers, based on the idea that domestic labourers are ‘not clean’. Such codes are ‘structural inequalities’ produced by caste, class and gender.

The author notes: “Given the history of sanitation workers in this country and the long-standing battle to challenge social ostracization and stigma around ‘touch’, the [State’s] Covid-19 health advisory of ‘touch me not’ is an irony to the living testimonies of migrant workers.” Migrant workers face new challenges of ostracism and social stigma, Dey writes, as new surveillance methods are enforced as result of the pandemic.

Focus by Parijat Lal.

PARI Library's health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


Editor: Ranabir Samaddar

Contributors: Abhijnan Sarkar, Ajeet Kumar Pankaj, Ambar Kumar Ghosh, Anamika Priyadarshini, Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Badri Narayan Tiwari, Ishita Dey, Madhurilata Basu, Manish K. Jha, Paula Banerjee, Rajat Roy, Ravi Arvind Palat, Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, Sabir Ahamed, Samata Biswas, Sibaji Pratim Basu, Sonamani Chaudhury, Swati Bhattacharjee and Utsa Sarmin


Manahirban Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata