COVID 19: Urgent support needed for rural poor, migrants, and urban workers says La Via Campesina South Asia

We, the members of La Via Campesina South Asia, express our concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural poor, migrants and urban workers.

Representing more than 14 peasant movements across South Asia, which include peasants, small and medium-size farmers, rural women and youth, Indigenous Peoples, migrant and agricultural workers, we believe that the current agro-industrial food system and neoliberal economies of South Asia are ill-equipped to deal with such a  crisis. 

South Asia’s high population density and the repeated failure of governments to provide adequate housing to our most vulnerable populations means that failure to act now will lead to catastrophic consequences. Living in crowded conditions, often without access to running water, our poorest citizens will be unable to self-isolate, practice social distancing, and frequent hand washing. 

Moreover, the working poor will not be able to feed themselves amidst the shutdowns in factories and businesses across South Asia. Governments have known that the number of cases across the region have been rising – but have continued to fail to act in a prepared and organised manner to protect the poorest populations. 

In many other countries, economic packages to support vulnerable workers have been announced before announcing lockdowns. In South Asia, our governments have waited for infections to spread and have announced sudden lockdowns without enforcing any measures to protect the working poor. Vulnerable workers living in precarious economic conditions, who already struggle to find daily work, are not only concerned about their health, they are struggling to figure out how they will put the next meal on the table for themselves and their families. 

South Asia’s public health infrastructure is already in shambles. Over the years, most governments have implemented neoliberal economic policies – drastically cutting government spending on public health, to allow for the privatization of these services.  Covid-19 exposes the catastrophic consequences of such policy decisions. 

The spread of the disease spreads from cities to villages, means that those at risk include agricultural workers, small and marginal farmers, MGNREGA workers, old age pensioners, widows, people with disabilities, slum dwellers, garbage collectors, the homeless and other vulnerable communities. In the midst of lockdowns, cases of domestic abuse and violence against women have also increased.

Governments continue to focus on mitigation packages on protecting big industries and banks. This approach continues to repeat the same logic that has led us to this crisis in the first place. It is the poorest and most vulnerable sections that must be at the center of the policies to combat the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and the economy. It is the livelihood of millions of daily wage workers, fisherfolk, or farm families that must be protected. 

The COVID-19 crisis has also shown us how the agro-industrial food system and corporate food regime increase the vulnerability of our food systems to global pandemics. The crisis has threatened food supplies around the world, but it is those food supplies that are based on long-distance and international trade that are the ones that have been disrupted the most. Scientists have documented how the damage to soil by agro-toxins and industrial production of meat has increased the threat of new pandemics. Farmers around the world have already suffered from the mass culling of animals due to bird flu, swine, and mad cow disease. 

The COVID pandemic should be a final wakeup call. The agro-industrial food system poses a threat to global health. It is time to replace it with a food system centered on peasant agroecology.
We demand;
Immediate health services and public awareness

  • Testing: Governments need to increase screening for the COVID-19 outbreak. Testing must be made freely available for everyone. 
  • Quarantine: Adequate and safe quarantine arrangements need to be made, including at the local level in rural areas.
  • Supplies: Ensure proper medical infrastructure and free supplies at each local headquarters. A kit that includes soap, handwash, sanitizer, and masks should be distributed to every poor household. Immediately increase the production and availability of materials necessary to deal with the crisis (testing kits, masks, respirators, and medicines).
  • Protecting doctors: Doctors must be supported through the provision of certified personal protection equipment (PPE) throughout the healthcare system. This equipment is essential for general practitioners, who are often the first responders to infectious diseases. 
  • Awareness campaigns: Proper awareness campaigns to be held in rural areas and for urban poor to give them information about COVID 19 and the steps that they should take to protect themselves and others around them. The importance of solidarity must be emphasized and discriminatory behavior strongly condemned. 
  • Stopping misinformation: Take strong action against groups spreading false and unscientific rumors such as cow urine and hand-clapping can cure Covid19, or that eating chicken causes it, as is taking place in India. 
  • Including grassroots: Grassroots movements must be included and called upon to support such public awareness efforts.
  • Role of media: The media has a social and moral responsibility to spread awareness about the ongoing crisis. Some of the current media coverage engages in fear-mongering and is adding to public anxiety. The media should adhere to journalistic ethics and stop creating fear among the people.

Addressing economic vulnerability

  • Economic support: Governments must support small businesses, workers and unemployed populations by providing direct cash transfers and basic income support 
  • Public spending: Governments must increase public expenditure on social, economic, income, and food security measures to deal with the ramifications of an imminent and protracted economic recession. 
  • Workers: Informal workers in all sectors, especially those on the contract or verbal employment, must be registered on an immediate basis and provided with income support above minimum wage 
  • Transport: Migrant workers should be supported with special trains or other means of transport to return to their villages safely if they so desire. 
  • Pensions: Provide pensions for older people, widows, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups in advance for at least three upcoming months
  • Debt: Immediately suspend loan and credit recoveries from farmers, agricultural workers, and migrant workers. 
  • Support packages: Announce special relief packages for landless, small and marginal farmers, fisherfolks and pastoralists. 
  • Women’s income opportunities: Support Women’s collectives like Self Help Groups in making masks and sanitizers.
  • Utility payments: Immediate absorption of all utility payments by the state—water, electricity, and internet provided as part of a human right; where these utilities are not universally accessible, we call for them to be provided with immediate effect.
  • Prisons: The overcrowding of prisons in South Asia needs to end immediately. Governments must release political prisoners, under trial prisoners and prisoners imprisoned on non-threatening crimes. Healthcare facilities in prisons must be improved before the COVID outbreak reaches there. 

Access to food

  • Prioritisation: National and local agriculture supply chains must be maintained on priority to avoid shortage of food items or market loss for farmers.
  • Essential services: Food production and transport should be declared essential services. 
  • Supporting farmers: Farmers and agricultural workers must be provided safety equipment, financial support, and transport services to ensure the continuity of food supplies.
  • Don’t restrict the movement of food: Food supplies within national borders must be allowed to move smoothly, even during curfews. Reports of trucks carrying agricultural produce being stopped due to curfews are worrying. 
  • Food rationing: Ensure the distribution of food grains, cooking oil, sugar, and other necessary materials in advance to all the poor in rural and urban areas.
  • Feeding the poor: Set up makeshift kitchens in big cities and district headquarters to distribute food packets amongst migrant labour and vulnerable populations safely.
  • Stop profiteering: There is a need for a strict crackdown on wholesalers and other food traders hoarding and profiteering by creating artificial food shortages.
  • Panic buying: Governments and retailers need to put in place restrictions on the food quantities consumers can purchase to stop panic buying. 

International and regional solidarity

  • Regional cooperation: It is essential to increase regional cooperation across a number of key areas, including information, equipment, surveillance, medical and food supplies. 
  • Vaccines and medicine: Developments in medicines and vaccines must be shared across the SAARC region and around the world. The case for ending the patenting of medicines has become even stronger. Global health must be re-organized under principles of care and solidarity, rather than maximising profits. 
  • Debt relief: International debt relief is essential to allow our countries to respond to a global pandemic. IMF structural adjustment programmes have crippled the economies of countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, where food prices have spiraled due to currency devaluation and economic contraction. 
  • Demilitarisation: The population facing internal wars faces an acute threat in the face of the COVID pandemic. We call for the immediate demilitarisation of such regions, including FATA and Balochistan in Pakistan, Kashmir, Bastar, and Nagaland in India, the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, and the Northern Province in Sri Lanka.
  • Migration and refugees: Refugee camps for Afghan, Rohingya and Bihari populations around South Asia are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. We demand the disbanding of refugee camps and providing refugee populations with income support to be able to take up adequate housing. 

Transform our food, health, and economic systemsThe COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to: 

Reject neoliberalism, support vulnerable populations: The already crumbling economies of South Asia face an uncertain future after the COVID-19 crisis. Neoliberalism has eroded our economic, health, and food systems. We need an economic system that meets the needs of the most vulnerable and impoverished populations through safety nets, including universal basic income, free healthcare, and social security measures.

Reject agro-industrial food system, support agroecology: We know that the global agro-industrial food system will continue to produce new pathogens, such as COVID-19. Our food system must be localised, diversified and in harmony with nature. We need a food system that is built on principles of food sovereignty and peasant agroecology. 
Building solidarity in difficult times: Faced with a crisis, solidarity must become the principle that organises our society, our economy and our international relations. This is the spirit shown by our health workers, medical professionals, sanitation workers and workers across food supply chains. We stand in solidarity with them.