When the gates locked down: India in the time of Corona

To say that a lot has happened since the year 2020 began is an understatement. My heart goes out to those battling, suffering, and grieving due to the COVID-19 pandemic all around the world. Every nation is in this together, or at least they should be. This article focuses on India. Specifically, this is my point-of-view as a middle-class young adult. It’s a privileged point of view but that affords me to have a look at the situation somewhat objectively.

Let’s start with a throwback to a Thursday.

19/03/2020, Thursday, New Delhi/Lucknow

Most people I knew were confused or panicked. I’d been getting most of my information about the COVID-19 situation from Twitter. The tragedy unfolding in Europe and forecasts of an impending one in the US had me at the edge.

It had been a few weeks since the Coronavirus scare had hit India. The Prime Minister was scheduled to address the nation at 8 PM. Given the PM’s penchant for surprise announcements (read demonetization), I decided to reschedule my Saturday flight ticket by two days. I wanted to fly out of Delhi that night to be with my parents. Perhaps I’d hoped for a lockdown back then itself. In the evening, I took a cab for the airport and started a conversation with the driver. He was understandably frustrated with the situation. His business had been severely affected. He complained about the Delhi government’s mandate for cab drivers to get their vehicles sanitized at the central bus depot, its mismanagement, and long queues.

Delhi airport T3 entrance — blurry, I know 😐

After an hour-long drive, I arrived at Delhi airport with a mask on my face and sanitizer in my pocket. The crowd that I’d gotten used to wasn’t there. I’d never seen it as empty. Most people inside the airport wore masks. The cleaning staff was hard at work. They constantly cleaned the floor and repeatedly sanitized the baggage trays. Fast forward to midnight and I’d landed in Lucknow.

After two driver-side cancellations, I found myself a cab. The driver told me how his business had slowed down. He mentioned that people were scared and went on to blame ‘meat-eaters’ for the pandemic. In stark contrast to the Delhi driver, he had accepted the situation. “Jinda bach gaye to paise kama lenge baad mei (If we stay alive, we can earn money later on)”, he said and smiled. Before I knew it, I was home. The last conversation had somewhat calmed me down.

03/05/2020, Sunday, Lucknow

It has been 40 days since a nationwide lockdown was imposed. During this period, the well-to-do have been forced to go into a state of reflection and introspection. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those struggling to make ends meet.

The first phase of lockdown lasted until 14th April and the second one until 3rd May. The third phase of the lockdown has been announced and will extend until 17th May. Restrictions in some regions are getting relaxed provided the infection’s spread is under control. These relaxations are meant to focus primarily on providing the daily wagers, who’ve been hit the hardest, and small businesses.

The migrants

After the lockdown’s announcement, urban India went to their beds worried about grocery supplies, and woke up to a disturbing reality. Plastered across news channels were daily wagers stuck at railway stations and bus depots. Their livelihoods had been cut off and they’d no way to travel back home. As the week progressed, we saw nameless faces undertake astonishing journeys to get back home.

Tens of thousands of urban poor, entire families at times, started walking on foot to get back to their hometowns and villages. In the worst case, they would’ve had to cover distances of up to a thousand miles on empty stomachs.

https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/we-will-starve-here-say-indias-poor-fleeing-cities-in-mass-exodus-2202819

It was chaos. The authority was clearly not prepared and neither was the rest of the population. In all fairness, this situation wasn’t something you prepare for in a couple of days. It brought to light the abject poverty prevalent in India that millions had only heard or read about.

These migrants had been living in metros and large cities to make a living. You may know them as painters, plumbers, carpenters, and shop/restaurant workers. News reports showed how they are forced to live in unbelievably cramped spaces, especially in Mumbai. They undertake these hardships in order to make an honest living, save money, and send it back to their homes. The lockdown and resulting hunger may have broken their trust in the system and society for good. That’s why they’re desperate to leave the cities they’d arrived in hoping for a better future. It’s a tragedy unlike any other. This can also have far-reaching consequences for India’s labor-driven economy.

The situation has improved due to the combined efforts of authorities, the corporate sector, startups, non-profits, and individuals. States have started coordinating along with railways to bring the labor force back to their homes. There’s still a lot to be done to help those in need. Reports of hungry and impoverished families keep appearing on the media. I hope that the images will linger in our minds and make us more empathetic.

Note: Below is a link to the donation website of Oxfam India. Please donate to an organization/initiative of your choice that’s helping out. Every contribution helps.

Ensure quality public healthcare
Help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the vulnerable communities by creating awareness and sharing verified…www.oxfamindia.org

The warriors

A couple of months back, videos of Italian doctors providing the tragic details of a rapidly worsening pandemic situation captured the world’s attention. A doctor broke down while explaining that they’d to “choose who to save”. It’s an unimaginable situation to be in. These accounts made the masses realize that if this is a war, medicos are warriors.

https://niti.gov.in/call-doctors-work-volunteers-covid-19-outbreak

In addition to medicos, there are a host of people helping to fight this pandemic. The scientists, authorities (police/bureaucrats/government), essential business workers (retailers/delivery), journalists, and non-profits are on the front-line. While the populace is confined to home, they are out ensuring the order is maintained and essential services remain active. At times, these people are forced to remain away from their families for days as a preventive measure.

Tragically, many warriors have gone down fighting globally and in India. There have also been reports of hospitals lacking sufficient equipment and gear. Cases of discrimination and violence against medical professionals have left many shocked. This ordeal will undeniably lead to emotional trauma on some of these warriors. It’s criminal to let such situations arise due to negligence, the lack of trying, or even ignorance. The warriors need to be protected, now and in the future!

Not all of them want to be heroic as much as lead ordinary lives, as is a human tendency. Yet, they have adapted to the new normal that has been thrust upon them. That may be the most heroic part about them after all.

https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/apr/09/mp-doctor-dies-of-covid-19-first-such-case-in-india-2127876.html

Note: Being a technologist, it has been heartening to see the Indian tech community pitch in too. I got to see such an effort up and close as a part of the organizing team at Coronathon, a month-long community-run online hackathon. The giants, unicorns, startup community, and techies at large have aided relief efforts and come up with innovative solutions.

https://coronathon.in/

The economy

Economies have been affected adversely across the globe. Comparisons are being drawn to the Great Depression in the 1930s. Unlike recessions, such as the 2008 crisis, fiscal reforms such as lowering interest rates and increasing liquidity may not lead to stability.

An immediate cause of concern is the jobs and businesses that will be lost. However, the effects of this economic depression on various groups of society will vary wildly. For some, this will lead to lower luxury spends. For others, it could mean not having enough food for their kids. For a country like India, the latter is going to be a widespread reality unless broad interventions are taken.

For the Indian economy, a key concern is the state of small businesses. A report by All Indian Manufacturers’ Association mentions “that 19% to 43% of the MSMEs may disappear if the crisis persists 4 or 8 weeks”. We’re nearing the 6-week mark now. The industry is hoping for economic stimulus and reforms from the government to rebuild. Unlike the west, India is a largely labor-driven economy. Remember the migrants we’d talked about earlier? They run this economy. Now that they want nothing more than the comfort and safety of their homes, they may not want to go back to the cities. Factories and shops won’t have enough workforce even when the lockdown ends. This could be temporary or signals a fundamental shift. We’ll have to wait and watch.
Note: We will only get through this by helping each other out. In the same spirit, we at Restat have been offering free consultations to small businesses trying to go digital and remote during the lockdown.

In India, similar to Japan and the US, there are calls to increase manufacturing self-sufficiency and reduce supply chain dependence on China. Talks of ‘new world order’ can be found floating around. The long-term effects may surprise us. Everyone, be it the decision-makers or common folks, will need to constantly assess the situation unfolding over the next few months and years.

The foolish fringe

No matter how bad any situation gets, there will always be elements that will try to make things worse. I refer to these as the “foolish fringe”. These include religious zealots, corrupt officials, divisive politicians, or selfish individuals.

We can’t let them capture the narrative. Giving them too much attention is a disservice to those trying their best to improve things and get through the pandemic.

Road ahead

The pandemic has affected the world’s collective conscience. It has brought the worst and the best out of us. The costs that we would’ve paid by the time this pandemic ends will haunt us. Humanity will get past this but our future trajectory has been altered, even if slightly.

Here’s to hoping that we come out of this stronger and hopefully, kinder. The lights won’t go out even if the gates remain locked down.

Stay safe, live long, and prosper!


Feature image from Vijay Barot on WikiMedia

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