Trapped in financial distress and debt

The economic distress caused by the pandemic has had a lasting impact on hundreds of families

The economic distress caused by the pandemic has had a lasting impact on hundreds of families

At Chaya, weekends were synonymous with non-vegetarian dishes. It was something of a ritual for the 24-year-old’s father, Subodh, to go out and buy meat on Sundays. But all that changed a year ago. The family of four residing in Balanagar, Hyderabad, avoid as much as possible – to save money. They are mindful of how they spend every penny and are focused on repaying the loans they took out for COVID-19 treatment from Subodh in May last year.

Subodh has recovered, but the family continues to struggle with the financial impact of the second wave of the pandemic. They had taken out a loan of ₹5 lakh, of which ₹3 lakh still needs to be repaid. Not only that, they had also mortgaged gold.

Chaya earns ₹16,500 per month as a beautician while her 27-year-old brother earns ₹22,000. They set aside 50% and 60% of their salaries respectively to settle outstanding loans. Also, they try not to take time off for fear there will be a payroll deduction.

“No matter how much I get, I keep ₹8,000 aside,” says Ms Chaya, looking determined to repay the loans as soon as possible.

“My father was admitted to a private hospital, which charged us ₹80,000 per day. We mortgaged our mother’s gold ornaments to cover treatment costs. When we ran out of money, we had to take out loans. Our first task is to reimburse people who have provided financial assistance during difficult times,” adds Ms. Chaya.

The economic distress caused by the pandemic has had a lasting impact on hundreds of families. Astonishing charges at corporate hospitals for the treatment of coronaviruses, post-COVID complications such as mucromycosis and long COVID have burned deep holes in their pockets.

With a meager monthly salary of ₹4,000, S. Anusha has the daunting task of paying off a debt of ₹1.70 lakh. The 24-year-old had taken out a high interest loan of ₹2 lakh for the treatment of her late husband, S. Rakesh, who was infected with COVID treatment last May. He was admitted to a private hospital in Karimnagar which charged ₹1 lakh per day! After two days of treatment there, Rakesh was transferred to the state-run Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Warangal, but soon died.

After his death, Mrs. Anusha did not even have time to process her loss. Left alone to care for their two sons, aged six and seven, she enlisted the help of a COVID volunteer to approach government officials and elected officials to find a job with a living wage. But help did not come from anywhere. Finally, she got a job at a women’s store.

This month will mark the first anniversary of Rakesh’s death. Besides the trauma of losing her husband, the young widow is struggling with her finances. Her parents sometimes help her with money, but she keeps her purse strings tight so she can repay the loans.

Her only solace is a two-room house that she owns, but she may not be able to hold onto the property for too long. “So far, I have successfully cleared a debt of ₹30,000. I plan to eliminate the remaining ₹1.70 lakh by selling my house. What can I do? I have no other choice,” says Anusha.

(Some names have been changed to protect identity)

Sarah J. Greer