Devi has been on the phone all morning. She’s called contractors, masons and friends to see if they have work for her tomorrow. But so far, no luck. Tomorrow she will try again.
“I just had two days of work last week and spent the money on groceries,” she says. “There’s nothing left now.”
India’s nationwide lockdown in the spring of 2020 left many Indians like Devi jobless. Now Devi, a 30-year-old construction laborer in Namakkal and single mother of two children, struggles to find stable work, jostling between multiple jobs in order to feed her family.
She earns 350 Indian rupees for a day of work, or roughly $4.74, to mix cement, break stones, and carry bricks and sand. If she can find work for three or four days out of the week, she might make between $14 and $18. It’s barely enough to make ends meet.
As the second wave of the pandemic spreads across the country, killing thousands every day, Devi is even more worried: One of her coworkers has shown symptoms in the last few days and some of her neighbors are sick. At construction worksites, it’s impossible to follow COVID safety protocols.
“Now it’s peak summer,” she says. “Even wearing a mask while working is uncomfortable, forget about maintaining distance.”
Meanwhile, Devi has mounting debt. She’s borrowed roughly $1,355 in loans from three microfinance firms: a weekly repayment loan and two monthly repayment loans. Every day, she receives threatening and abusive phone calls from lenders demanding she repay.
But she doesn’t have the money.
“There is no job, no earning,” she says. “From where will I pay?”
At 4 p.m., Devi has her first meal of the day—a cup of hot tea and some leftover rice. Devi was underweight and anemic before the pandemic took hold.
“I’ve lost more weight now,” says Devi with a hollow laugh, talking over the phone from her two-room tiled roof house in Namakkal.
She relies on India’s public food ration distribution system, which offers basics like rice, dhal, sugar and oil, to eat.
Her two children were dependent on the free noon meal scheme of the Tamil Nadu state government, through which the family is also able to get eggs. Since the pandemic has shut down schools across India, dry ration is supplied to government school students to prevent malnutrition. But the supply has been irregular, she says.
“When will this end?” asks Devi.