India’s Chaotic Cities Turn Eerily Silent as Virus Fears Grow
(Bloomberg) -- The bustling streets are silent across much of India as the country heeds Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day lockdown to break the chain of transmission of the coronavirus, but the WhatsApp groups are buzzing.
As the number of infections continue to rise, the anger and anxiety once expressed by the honking of horns at rush hour is finding voice on neighborhood and family message groups trying to figure out new rules for community living as the pandemic sweeps across the world.
Should part-time domestic workers be allowed to come and go? Are newspaper deliveries also bringing infections? What about food and groceries? Who should be allowed into apartment buildings?
The fear of infections has brought the chasm, always lingering in the background in this sprawling nation of 1.3 billion, between the country’s privileged and wealthy and the millions of poor who cook and clean and chauffeur them around, into sharp focus.
It’s also exposed how woefully ill-prepared India is to meet the needs of the millions of daily wage laborers who live off what they earn each day, keeping the flow of essential goods and services rolling to people who’ve been ordered to stay indoors for three weeks.
By Saturday India had reported 834 infections and 19 deaths, but there are growing fears the country will soon be overwhelmed with cases.
In Mumbai’s northern suburb of Ghatkoper, R-City mall, one of the city’s biggest, is now a playground for cats, and the nearby metro construction work has stopped. Meanwhile, in the Navi Mumbai suburb, municipal vehicles are blasting announcements on ways to prevent the disease.
Apartment complexes and residential neighborhoods across many Indian cities have issued a blanket ban on the entry of part-time workers and drivers. While this might seem sensible social distancing in most countries, in India it’s also as deeply about entrenched class biases.
“Most people are reacting out of fear, banning migrant, daily wage labor from their gated societies, locking them out without monthly payments, blaming them for spreading the virus,” said Arpita Chatterjee, a freelance editor in New Delhi. “The truth is the disease has been brought to them by people like us who fly, travel, migrate through airports, bringing infection and disease to the poor who have no means of battling with it.”
The rules seem to apply only to domestic helpers in most parts. Friends and relatives entering the buildings seem to get by with no questions asked or a cursory drop of hand sanitizer
And the rumors are relentless. Photographs of quarantine posters pasted outside homes are passed around from phone to phone with little concern about privacy or even accuracy. “Corona has reached our doorstep,” said one message in Delhi with just a red quarantine symbol as illustration.
In the midst of the Covid-19 debates, people like poet and academic Abhishek Anicca find themselves isolated.
“I am disabled, chronically ill and live on my own in a rented apartment in East Delhi,” he said over the phone. “Ever since the lockdown has been announced, I have been nervous. My groceries are running out and will last only for a week. None of the online deliveries are functional in my area.”
Despite government assurances that supplies of food and other essentials would not be affected, shops in many cities are either out of supplies or running out fast. There are reports that trucks transporting supplies are being held up by police at state borders. Even manufacturers of medical equipment required to fight the virus say they’re struggling to make sure raw material and workers can reach factories.
The abrupt halt of all movement -- Modi announced the lockdown late Tuesday night to be implemented the very next day -- has hit millions of India’s most poor the hardest. As gradual shutdowns were announced a week ago hundreds of thousands began to pack into crowded trains leaving the cities, panicked about being stranded without work, money or food.
Those returning home from big cities and towns are being tested at local primary healthcare centers before entering their villages, said Rajeev Gupta, a real estate broker from Delhi who was in his village in Muzaffarpur district in the eastern state of Bihar before the lockdown was announced. Most people in rural areas are practicing social distancing -- some more stringently than others -- while some people have stopped farming. “There is fear in the atmosphere,” Gupta said. “Coronavirus has become the main topic of discussion.”
But millions more are still stuck as all railway movement across the country has been halted. The government announced an $22 billion relief package on Thursday, but the terror is palpable as families sit huddled under flyover and near bus stops unsure of what happens next. Local media has reported thousands of people are simply walking hundreds of kilometers toward their villages, clutching their children and meager belongings.
Under one South Delhi flyover Puran, who uses just one name, stood with his family. In their hands they clutched a few packets of biscuits. The women and children beg for money, the men get odd jobs as day laborers. Now the streets are empty and there is no work.
“We need some money or some food,” Puran said. “Someone gave us these,” he said showing the packets. “Because of this illness we have no work. We can’t go home. How can we live on these?”
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