Economic distress due to lockdowns behind several suicides in Kerala
August 2, 2021: Fatima found her 34-four-year-old twin sons, Nisar Khan and Naseer Khan, dead at their home at Kadavuvakkulam in Kottayam. The siblings were working as crane operators and had been jobless for a while. A few days ago, they got an eviction notice from the local urban cooperative bank for loan default of ₹12 lakh. A bank official had visited them recently to remind them about repayment.
August 1, 2021: Vinayakumar, 43, a graphic designer from Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district, hanged himself to death. As per local media reports, Vinayakumar was jobless for over a year and had defaulted on loans.
These and many more cases of suicide in recent past beg for an explanation.
Kerala takes pride in saying that the state’s COVID death count is among the lowest in the country. However, it is quite evident that persistent lockdowns are pushing people towards financial distress. Going by media reports, at least 20 people have committed suicide in Kerala over the last 45 days because of money constraints. Six cases were reported in 24 hours since August 1.
Most people who took the extreme step due to financial crunch are small vendors, tourist operators, drivers, grocery and bakery shop owners and small farmers.
People in light and sound business have been jobless since two years because no public gatherings and programmes are allowed. Nirmal Chandran, 54, was from Thiruvananthapuram and Ponnumani, 59, from Palakkadu committed suicide in different cases in July. Both had light and sound businesses.
Stress and depression caused due to joblessness has had a cascading effect. Twenty-seven-year-old Sharath from Kunnamkulam in Thrissur was a tipper driver. He committed suicide after he lost his job. Sharath’s father Damodaran too hanged himself on finding his son dead.
Experts say that a slump in the economy has affected people’s mental health badly. “Problems faced by small businesses and traders during the lockdown period are a consequence of the economic slowdown that has engulfed the national economy. No state in India has been immune to this difficulty,” says Dr. Ramakumar, a member of the State Planning Board and a faculty member of Tata Institute of Social science. “Much of the present economic difficulties faced by small businesses and small traders are owing to their inability to repay bank loans. The Government of India and the Reserve Bank of India are in charge of modifying the specifications of regulatory forbearance to help small players in the economy and bring relief to them. The state government has very little degree of freedom in this regard,” he added.
Dr. Ramakumar suggests that the state government can help these businesses and traders by giving them specific exemptions from paying certain taxes or utility bills. “The economic relief package announced by the Government of Kerala in March 2020 as well as the additional package announced last week address this question with some extent of comprehensiveness,” Dr. Ramakumar told The Federal.
There is a growing demand from all corners of the society to relax lockdown rules. However, high test positivity rate prevailing in Kerala stops the state government from taking such a decision. Organisations like the Vyapari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi organised street protests demanding relaxation in lockdown rules and sought permission for shops and commercial establishments to function every day.
“Connecting every suicide to mental health would not be the right way of looking at it,” says Dr. C.J. John, chief psychiatrist at Medical Trust Hospital, Ernakulam. “Depression and stress that appear to be the main causes behind people taking the extreme step might have social, economic and political overtures. A person feeling low because of financial burden does not only need therapy, but also financial support.” Dr John said that Kerala is gripped with an invisible poverty which is a direct impact of lockdown.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Kerala records 5th highest number of suicide deaths in the country. Kerala’s suicide rate is recorded as 24.3 which is far above the national average of 11.04 (the number of suicides per one lakh population).
(Please reach out to a mental health specialist if you need support or know someone who does. Helplines: AASRA: +91 98204 66726; SAHAI: 080 25497777)