The nationwide lockdown declared by the government in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic ruptured the country’s society and economy in unforeseen ways. The long march of migrant workers to their towns and villages in unprecedented numbers drove home the extreme precarity of migrant lives. The lockdown also generated a new discourse of stigma based on the movement of migrant bodies, giving rise to new forms of exclusion, monitoring and control. In this context, the pathologizing of migrant bodies marks a shift in the discourse of public health from concerns of sanitization, hygiene and clean drinking water to the question of survival itself.
The covalence of the migrant crisis and public health crisis creates an urgent need for research on the structural questions arising from this humanitarian emergency. At its heart is the exclusionary dimension of the word public. The near absence of migrants in policy discourse prior to the lockdown lent their visibility during the pandemic a pathologized nature.
The epidemiological crisis has brought out in the open the neoliberal face of healthcare. The existing public health discourse in India further exposes the fault lines along which welfare measures and health care for migrants are laid out.
This situation generates an alternate set of questions, from access to healthcare to a medical insurance-centric health policy, privatisation of healthcare, the precarity of impoverished bodies in informal settlements like slums and bastis, to the rhetoric of militarization accompanying the Covid-19 response, with ‘frontline’ workers – most often
vulnerable migrants – traversing this ‘battlefield’ without any safety gear and provision. The situation urges us to revisit some of the questions that had received inadequate attention in policy and academic discourse. The assessment of migrant vulnerability
through an examination of national health policies across economic and social divides can be indicative of the scale of the problem.
This symposium on migrants and public health was a platform to investigate and integrate some of the primary concerns arising from the state of public health in India, privatisation of the health care system, the skewed nature of governance in addressing public health
concerns in our cities’ poor, overcrowded neighbourhoods, and the fact that workers leading the response against the pandemic are rendered disposable for fear of disease and
contamination. How do these binaries coexist and become new sites of discrimination?
This symposium aimed to inaugurate discussions that posit the migrant crisis as a collective crisis and public health as the need for the security of all lives.
This symposium was a part of Calcutta Research Group’s Migration & Forced Migration Studies programme supported by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna and other universities and institutions in India.