Capitalism has failed blue collar workers, who now face a greater crisis than COVID-19 

An even bigger humanitarian crisis than COVID-19 awaits blue collar workers in the US and in India, where suicides and other mental health issues are affecting the workers

 Representative Image (Painting by Sanjeev Shashwati)
Representative Image (Painting by Sanjeev Shashwati)

V Venkateswara Rao

Deaths Of Despair And The Future Of Capitalism, is a best-seller co-authored by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, professors of economics at Princeton University. They had sounded alarm bells about the overwhelming surge in deaths and shed light on the social and economic forces that are making life harder for the working class in the US, even before the virus had struck. In this critically acclaimed book, Anne Case and Angus Deaton tie the crisis to the weakening position of labour and the growing power of corporations.

The book narrates several stories like that of a 43-year-old white man whom the authors call Darin. Darin was recently divorced and recovering from a car accident when he was fired from his job in a biscuit factory. Deaths Of Despair And The Future Of Capitalismis about such American people, especially about vulnerable American white men without a four year bachelor’s degree. Midlife deaths from drugs and alcohol (though not suicides) spiked in black communities in the 1980s, when offshoring of factory jobs deprived the blue-collar black men of well-paid jobs in the US that made them proud at home and in society. Blacks suffered the first wave of deaths of despair - and it was now spreading to the blue-collar white men without formal degrees. Because of competition from cheap labour in the global south and robots at home, capitalism is failing the blue-collar workers in the US. While the answer may not be to eliminate so-called free enterprise altogether, the authors caution that the US needs to urgently fix the problem.

The economic hardships, job losses, grief and isolation related to COVID-19 are creating an unprecedented mental health crisis in the US that researchers warn could make the already-rising suicide rate worse. A research study released by the Well Being Trust and researchers affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians on Friday found that over the next decade, as many as 75,000 additional people in the US could die from “deaths of despair” as a result of the Coronavirus crisis.

Mental health experts worry that the economic uncertainty and social isolation of the pandemic will make things worse at a time when the health care system is already overwhelmed in the US. “There’s a paradox. Social isolation protects us from a contagious, life-threatening virus, but at the same time it puts people at risk for things that are the biggest killers in the United States: suicide, overdose and diseases related to alcohol abuse,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president of a Long Island-based nonprofit social services agency, the Family and Children’s Association. Data is showing that lower-income Americans are more impacted by Coronavirus-related stress than their wealthier counterparts. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 26% of Americans making less than $ 40,000 a year said that the virus had a “major negative impact” on their mental health, compared to only 14% of Americans making $90,000 or more a year who said the same.

In India too, the COVID-19 lockdown has turned into a humanitarian crisis for the lowpaid blue-collar employees and migrant workers. Lacking jobs and money, and with public transportation shut down, hundreds of thousands of migrants who have no job security or protection, were forced to trek often hundreds of miles back to their home villages – with some dying on the road, noted the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The nationwide lockdown in India has impacted nearly 40 million internal migrants, the World Bank has said. The World Bank has called on the Indian government to include all migrant workers in public services, including healthcare and cash transfer programmes.

Millions of India’s migrant labourers say they are in a limbo, struggling to access aid to survive the 59-day-long lockdown in the states where they work. The Indian migrant workers’ woes were first noticed by the media and government only when lakhs of them had started walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes. Towards the end of the lockdown 2.0, the Indian government decided that something has to be done to move the restless migrant workers to their home states. Hence, many states have started running special trains.

The life of a migrant worker would never be the same as before, whenever he or she reaches home. The first question would be of livelihood. Apart from jobs, most of them have exhausted their savings as well. Harvest season of wheat, which comes as an employment opportunity, is already over when they go home in summer. “Home states like UP and Bihar had little to offer to them. Otherwise, they would have never migrated to faraway states in the first place. Villages and small towns don’t have much opportunities anyway,” says Brajesh Mishra, Editor-in-Chief of Bharat Samachar TV.

The Indian migrant workers are a dejected lot. In spite of unemployment or under-employment in their native villages, many of them may shun the cities even after the lockdown ends. Luckily, the endurance, resignation and forbearance qualities of Indian migrant workers and blue-collar employees are relatively high, compared to their counter-parts in the US. The Indian migrant workers’ and blue-collar employees’ misery may be high, but they will surely fight back against the deaths of despair.

(V VenkateswaraRao is a retired corporate professional and a freelance writer)

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