Covid beats the aspiring Indian middle classes

When Ram Prakash died after a feverish and breathless week, the grief of his wife and 16-year-old daughter was compounded by fears that the modest middle-class safety net he had woven would be torn apart.

The 53-year-old tax advisor to local businesses, he was one of the millions who had joined India’s rapidly growing middle class over the past decades. Their growing incomes, better education and better consumption fueled one of the world’s great economic success stories.

But the second calamitous wave that claimed the life of Ram, the breadwinner of the family, shattered the Prakash’s hopes for the future. “Our life was going well but now it’s over,” said Uma, his widow.

Economists warn that the latest outbreak could have longer-term ramifications for middle-class Indians whose increasing consumption is expected to be the country’s growth engine for many years to come.

“India, at the end of the day, is a consumer story,” said Tanvee Gupta Jain, UBS chief economist for India. “If you’ve never recovered from the 2020 wave and you’re entering the 2021 wave, then that’s a concern.

India reported more than 320,000 Covid-19 infections and 3,800 deaths on Monday. Experts argue that both figures are grossly underestimated.

The disease made the Indians suffer whatever the context. Yet this time it hit hard an ambitious middle class whose new privilege previously protected them.

Lack of oxygen has been blamed for thousands of deaths © Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times via Getty

Public health experts are reporting signs that, after widespread infection among the urban poor last year, sectors of society, including the relatively well-off, were more vulnerable this time around. This situation was made worse by the virtual collapse of the private health services they relied on.

“You are well off, but you cannot get a hospital bed. You are well off, but you cannot get oxygen, ”said Saurabh Mukherjea, founder of Marcellus Investment Managers. “It’s deeply disorienting.”

India’s middle class was already severely weakened by the recession following last year’s lockdown, even though it was better protected against the virus itself.

The Pew Research Center found that 32 million people were no longer part of the Indian middle class – defined as those earning between $ 10 and $ 20 a day – in 2020. This represented more than half of those added to the category since. 2011.

Bar chart of the estimated change in the number of people in each income level due to the global recession (in millions) showing India's poor increased while the middle class shrank in 2020

The Indian economy was expected to rebound before the second wave hit. For middle-class Indians on the brink, like the Prakash family, this second shock may prove too heavy.

Ram, a tax advisor, had moved his family to a one-bedroom house in a humble New Delhi neighborhood, bought a car and sent his daughter to a low-cost private school, in hopes that she could become an accountant. approved.

“He gave us so much during his lifetime,” said his daughter Vasundhara. “I only hope that I can continue my studies.”

Experts debated what led to the high number of cases among middle-class Indians and the wealthy during the second wave.

Anup Malani, a professor at the University of Chicago, suggests that these populations have been shown to be more susceptible, especially as new variants spread.

In Mumbai, for example, studies last year found that around 50% of slum dwellers had anti-Covid-19 antibodies, compared to less than 20% in surrounding more affluent neighborhoods.

It is believed to have made the middle and upper classes more vulnerable, especially to serious illnesses, the researchers said. Doctors report similar trends elsewhere in India.

Bar chart of the estimated number of people in each income level in 2020 before and after the global recession (in millions) showing The pandemic slows the growth of India's middle class

“The first wave largely infected the poorest populations”, Malani and two co-authors wrote this month. The second wave “is disproportionately made up of people who are not slums”.

Researchers said more data was needed, but other more sensitive populations could include those outside cities, such as those in poor rural areas with poor health care, where the virus is wreaking havoc. .

The outbreak was so sudden that it overwhelmed even the best hospitals in India, including private establishments in cities like Delhi or Bangalore.

Less than 1% of Delhi’s 5,800 Covid intensive care beds are available, for example, while crippling oxygen shortages have contributed to countless deaths.

After Ram Prakash’s oxygen levels dropped, his family spent two frantic days transporting him to six separate hospitals – private and public – in a desperate attempt to find treatment.

In the end, they brought him home. Ram died on April 27.

Uma and Vasundhara fear economic ruin. They have a shortfall of Rs30,000 ($ 408) to meet immediate expenses, including tuition and the mortgage on a neighboring unit that Ram bought as an office.

“Right now our concern is simply to survive, to obtain food and to meet our daily expenses. But there won’t be enough, ”Vasundhara said.

They plan to sell their car and Uma, a former Sanskrit teacher, wants to find a job. But they fear that the hopes for a better life are gone.

“We never imagined this could happen to us,” Vasundhara said. “We just can’t figure this out.”

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