The people locked down and locked out in the cold during the pandemic

Millions are unable to survive the pandemic or the rules to contain it. Their stories make a compelling case for a universal basic income grant. #HumansofCOVID19

Kerry mugshot.jpg
Kerry Cullinan
6 August 2020, 7.09am

The #HumansofCOVID19 series started in April as the world was locking down against the coronavirus. Its aim was to reflect the experiences of people worst affected by the pandemic.

Queer activists, migrant workers, peasant farmers, informal sector traders, sex workers and older women have shared their fears, loneliness and problems over loss of income.

The series is built on first-person accounts, encompassing 24 stories from fourteen countries as diverse as Albania, Ecuador, India, Palestine, South Africa, the UK and Vietnam.

Together, they make a compelling case for the need for a global basic income grant. In a pandemic, we are only as strong as our weakest link. If people have no food or income, they do what they can to survive – even when it means breaking the regulations devised to make societies safe.

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When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his country’s lockdown from midnight of 24 March, he gave the country’s 1.3 billion citizens barely four hours’ notice. Realising that they faced starvation and homelessness in Bangalore, Pushplata and Pavitra Uikey tried to get back to their village. But the journey was over 1,000 kilometres, public transport had been suspended, Pushplata was pregnant and they had to walk part of the way in 45°C heat.

With hundreds of thousands of migrant workers jostling to get from cities to rural villages, the Modi shutdown probably did more to exacerbate the spread of the virus than to contain it.

For Shankar Darekar, a peasant farmer in India’s Maharashtra province, the suspension of public transport meant that his grapes couldn’t get to buyers. Yet he had borrowed heavily to produce his crop, as he does each year, paying the money back after it is sold.

“The Modi government, which had arranged special jets to fly back the rich who were stranded abroad, was unwilling to run the railways for a few more days to transport our crops,” says Darekar bitterly. He tries not to think about suicide as he wonders how to repay his debt.

On the fringes

Like Pavitra Uikey in India, Nexhmie Qerimi, part of the Roma community in Albania, and South African Rendani Sirwali eke out a living in the informal sector. But lockdowns and curfews have made this almost impossible.

Qerimi, who survives from recycling trash, had to break Albania’s curfew and live in terror of arrest. Sirwali’s vegetable and fruit stock went rotten when the local market closed and she couldn’t sell it. With no savings to fall back on, she went from being the breadwinner of her family of four to wholly dependent on relatives for food.

Zinzi*, a South African sex worker from a huge informal settlement in Cape Town, admits to being forced to accept as little as $2.50 for sex because clients are so scarce.

“There is no such thing as physical distancing where I live,” adds Zinzi. “We have been told to stay at home and stay away from others, but we don’t do that at all. I can’t stay inside a shack all day. I need to go out and try to find a way to get something to eat.”

Meanwhile, Graciela*, a sex worker in her mid-fifties in Argentina, says that she would not be able to eat if it was not for the sex-worker support network she and other sex workers built in the country.

“We have to run so many risks, but we have no social benefits, safety or state protection,” says Graciela. “We cannot register at the Ministry of Labour, we cannot pay taxes and we cannot pay for social security because, to the government, our profession does not exist.”

Workers in the informal sector don’t qualify for unemployment benefits and few low- and middle-income countries are providing pandemic relief payments to people in the informal sector or who are unemployed.

While many people have been able to get support from their families, this isn’t possible for many LGBTIQ people, says queer activist Marylise Bible.

“There are those who are finding solace in religion. There are those who are finding solace in family. LGBTIQ people can hardly find solace in these because these are the sources of our pain to begin with,” says Biubwa.


Loneliness poses a significant risk to people’s health, particularly older people, and its effect has been acutely felt by millions during the lockdown. Eighty-four-year-old Galina Amirkhanyan, who lives alone in Armenia in a rundown hut with no running water, describes how she barely feels alive because she is so isolated.

Colombian human rights activist Luz Marina Bernal, a grandmother and champion of those whose family members are part of the “forced disappearances”, has also been forced to stay at home alone for fear of reprisals against her own family.

Golnaz Farahi*, a young Afghan woman sent to marry her husband in Iran, has been unable to go out and make friends, while Zhang Jing*, a Chinese student in London, spends hours online and shrinks from the xenophobia on the streets.

Meanwhile, Armenian Karineh Matevosyan describes feeling socially isolated, trapped in a toxic relationship with an alcoholic husband who is often violent. Gender-based violence has soared during COVID-19, prompting UN Women to describe it as a “shadow pandemic” that needs urgent attention.

The coronavirus has laid bare broken and antisocial systems: countries with no safety nets for the poor, no universal healthcare, no sick pay for low-income earners, no unemployment relief for those in the informal economy. It has exposed romantic notions of families as safe havens, particularly for women in violent partnerships and LGBTIQ people with prejudiced family members.

Millions of people are on the edges of discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic – excluded from relief packages and solutions. It may be possible to construct stronger systems to withstand the next global pandemic. But only if new systems are inclusive and based on equity and solidarity.

* Not their real names.

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