Council Commentary

INDIA: Perspectives on Inequalities Magnified by COVID-19

This past year, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every country, every community, and every person in this world – but not equally nor in the same ways. For communities who experience vulnerability and marginalization, because of structural barriers such as economic inequality, racism, harmful gender norms, and numerous other intertwining factors, these challenges have been exacerbated and inequalities even further exposed by the pandemic. 

As our epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, public health specialists and researchers have worked to produce relevant and timely evidence to support national health ministries and other government agencies around the world in their COVID-19 response strategies, they have seen first-hand the effects and impacts of COVID-19 on populations and communities experiencing the most marginalization and poverty. Many of our colleagues, especially those conducting research in the communities in which they live and work, see their work as key to addressing many of the historical inequities that are familiar to them. As part of a series we are sharing throughout this week, we asked a few of them to reflect on their work and how they hope, through research and evidence generation, that they will help address the various inequities that are being magnified by the pandemic.  

Read below contributions from three of our colleagues in India: 

Rajib Acharya, Senior Associate; and Akash Porwal, Program Officer II 

As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, India has become the country with second highest number of reported cases and the third highest number of deaths in the world. The pandemic has hit the country’s economy hard, with a 7% contraction in its gross domestic product (2020-21) and the loss of millions of jobs, resulting in significantly reduced household incomes. This will likely reduce the availability, accessibility, affordability and quality of food consumed, especially for vulnerable socio-economic groups, women and children. In a phone survey of 1,694 households conducted in two large states of India – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh - we found stark inequity in those areas. 

Our study indicated that many households faced a shortage of food items in April to May 2020, and many had to reduce their food intake during the first pandemic-related lockdown that took place March to May 2020. Of those who reported a shortage of food items in their household, more than 8 out of 10 also reported a reduction in food intake. Our findings indicated that women were more likely to have been affected than men in the household by food shortage and reduced intake. It is well known that in much of South Asia, inequities in intra-household food allocation are gendered in favour of men. During a pandemic it is likely to have exacerbated, and women in the household might have sacrificed their share of food to sustain the daily food intake for the men of the family.  

Despite the government’s efforts to provide free food to all who needed it, food shortages and reduced food intake were reported among households with pregnant women, with children under 5 years of age, in marginalized households, and by those who lost income during lockdown. 

Evidence from our study suggests that government nutrition schemes must improve support for pregnant women and young children, particularly prioritizing and strengthening school meals for school-going children, and ensure adequate resources are allocated to meet the increased demand for nutrition-related support. The country has a huge opportunity to learn from the pandemic and build effective and resilient systems of nutrition program delivery that addresses existing and exacerbated inequalities.  

Sohini Paul, Senior Program Officer II 

Due to the pandemic-related closure of schools in India, a Council project aiming to develop an evidence base on the implementation of life and vocational skills training for girls in government secondary schools in Bihar had to deliver the programming digitally beginning in September 2020. The project - to conduct implementation research on school-to-work life skills and vocational training programming designed by Going to School (GTS), a non-profit content creation organization – has been implemented at scale by the government and aims to expand perceived opportunities available for girls in their transition from school, improving their self-confidence and self-reliance.  

In light of the pandemic, GTS aired interactive, online chat shows for the students in 9th to 12th grades/standard that featured relevant presentations, animations, and question-answer sessions with students. An Interactive Voice Response service evaluated student's learnings from the show, and we conducted a qualitative phone survey to understand students' engagement and challenges in accessing and engaging with this new model during the pandemic. 

Our research provided important insights into digital, gender-sensitive programming during the pandemic. Viewers appreciated the step-by-step planning and messaging around girls' empowerment, and while programming was meant for both girls and boys, the show is more focused on girls with respect to role models and messaging.  However, implementation was not without many challenges. For instance, a significant proportion of the vast student community could not watch the shows since they do not have access to television or the internet, especially in remote and rural areas. Girls have particularly restricted access to phones.  

These findings echo much of what our colleagues in Kenya found related to the digital divide and limitations for adolescents, particularly girls, in accessing education due to existing inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. Concerted efforts must be made to ensure that adolescent girls are not left behind as we work to make back gains on progress in worldwide education and empowerment goals.  

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Read additional perspectives on this topic from Council colleagues in BangladeshMexicoPakistan and Kenya from earlier this week. 

Learn more about the research collected worldwide by the Population Council to address the populations at the greatest disadvantage and inform responses to the COVID-19 pandemic on the new Humanitarian Task Force site.