When Ram Prakash died after a feverish and breathless week, his wife and 16-year-old daughter’s heartbreak was compounded by fear that the modest middle class safety net he had knitted together might be ripped apart.
The 53-year-old, a tax adviser to local businesses, was one of the millions who had joined India’s fast-growing middle class in recent decades. Their rising incomes, better education and consumption powered one of the great global economic success stories.
But the calamitous second wave that claimed the life of Ram, the family’s breadwinner, has shattered the Prakashes hopes for the future. “Our life was going good but now it’s all over,” said Uma, his widow.
Economists warn that the latest outbreak could have longer-term ramifications for middle class Indians whose rising consumption was expected to the country’s growth engine for many years.
“India, at the end of the day, is a consumption story,” said Tanvee Gupta Jain, UBS’s chief India economist. “If you never recovered from the 2020 wave and then you go into the 2021 wave, then it’s a concern.”
India reported more than 320,000 Covid-19 infections and 3,800 deaths on Monday. Experts maintain that both figures are vastly undercounted.
The disease has heaped suffering on Indians irrespective of background. Yet this time, it has hit hard an aspirational middle class whose newfound privilege previously helped shield them.
A lack of oxygen has been blamed for thousand of deaths © Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty
Public-health experts point to signs that after widespread infection among the urban poor last year, sectors of society including the comparatively affluent were more vulnerable this time round. This was compounded by the near-collapse of private health services on which they relied.
“You’re affluent but you can’t get a hospital bed. You’re affluent but you can’t get oxygen,” said Saurabh Mukherjea, founder of Marcellus Investment Managers. “That’s deeply disorientating.”
India’s middle class was already severely weakened by the recession that followed last year’s lockdown, even if they were better protected from the virus itself.
The Pew Research Center found that 32m people fell out of India’s middle class — defined as those earning between $10 and $20 a day — in 2020. That represented more than half of those added to the category since 2011.
India’s economy was expected to roar back before the second wave struck. For middle-class Indians on the brink, such as the Prakash family, this second shock may prove too much.
Ram, a tax consultant, had moved his family to a one-bedroom house in a humble New Delhi neighbourhood, bought a car and sent his daughter to a low-cost private school, hoping she could become a chartered accountant.
“He gave us so much when he was alive,” said Vasundhara, his daughter. “I only hope I will be able to continue my studies.”
Experts have debated what drove the high caseloads among middle class and rich Indians during the second wave.
Anup Malani, a professor at the University of Chicago, suggests that those populations proved more susceptible, particularly as new variants spread.
In Mumbai, for example, studies last year found that about 50 per cent of slum residents had Covid-19 antibodies, compared with fewer than 20 per cent in more affluent surrounding neighbourhoods.
This is believed to have left the middle and upper classes more vulnerable, particularly to severe disease, researchers said. Doctors report similar trends elsewhere in India.
“The first wave largely infected poorer populations,” Malani and two co-authors wrote this month. The second wave “is disproportionately composed of individuals who are from non-slums”.
Researchers said more data were needed but other more susceptible populations could include those outside cities, such as those in poor rural areas with shoddy healthcare, where the virus is wreaking havoc.
The outbreak was so sudden it overwhelmed even India’s best hospitals, including private facilities in cities such as Delhi or Bangalore.
Fewer than 1 per cent of Delhi’s 5,800 Covid ICU beds are available, for example, while crippling shortages of oxygen have contributed to countless deaths.
After Ram Prakash’s oxygen levels dropped, his family spent two frantic days ferrying him to six separate hospitals — both private and public — in a desperate bid 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 school fees and the mortgage on a neighbouring unit that Ram bought as an office.
“Right now our worry is just to survive, to get food and meet our daily expenses. But there won’t be enough,” said Vasundhara.
They plan to sell their car, and Uma, a former Sanskrit teacher, wants to find work again. But they worry hopes of a better life are over.
“We had never imagined this could happen to us,” Vasundhara said. “We just can’t get our head around this.”
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