By Sumit Sharma
Mumbai, India (March 28) – “The virus may not get us, but hunger surely will” is the common sentiment expressed by workers joining the long walk exodus from large towns for their villages, some as far as 900 kilometers.
The decision to impose a national lockdown with just three-and-half-hour notice for three weeks beginning midnight March 24 not only caught citizens unawares and unprepared, but is also exposing the government’s weak preparation, planning and anticipation of the host of problems that could be waiting to explode.
Most critically the country stares at woeful inadequacy of medical facilities in case the pandemic spurts in a country of 1.38 billion people, with average density of 404 people per square kilometer with the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi reaching a density of 11,300 people per square kilometer.
The national lockdown force shut the 70,000-kilometer railway network that moves 8.2 billion passengers each year, and all its 142,000 kilometer highways, and every human movement between each of the 720 districts, leaving no choice for hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers to pack themselves in the last few trains leaving larger cities.
Those left back sensed there was little choice and decided to walk.
What could seem to be an act of a madman, workers wearing thin slippers, balancing belongings on the head, often with wife and little children following them… set off on an unchartered path, to a destination they have no clue when, and if at all, they’ll reach.
For India’s poor, this is a second knockout blow in three and half years. The demonetization of 500- and 1,000-rupee notes, without alternatives and planning from mid-night November 6, 2016 rendered millions of workers jobless, shut small and medium sized factories, destroyed many families, left farmers holding produce they could not sell, for want of new currency notes. Some economists say Indian economy is still to fully recover from that blow.
Planners of the coronavirus lockdown probably couldn’t see beyond the densely crowded cities, and the need to control the virus there. They anticipated the lockdown could achieve the “social distancing” albeit with some inconvenience.
What the planners did not plan for was the effects of a three-week closure of factories, shops, malls, showrooms, eating joints and all other kinds of workplaces. This would render workers jobless and out of money, making it impossible for them to pay for food and shelter. For most, returning to villages seemed the only option.
Sadly, what gets missed out is that without these workers who are the oil to the machines of India’s metropolises, working as cooks, waiters, laundrymen, cabbies, deliverymen, shopkeepers, factory labor and thousands of other chores, a city could collapse.
Empty pocket and empty stomach seemed less of a bother in the face of aggressive cops enforcing the lockdown. Workers walking along highways were easy fodder for the cane-wielding cops. Social media was splashed with clips of workers made to crawl on their knees; or do frog jump in groups, or do murga (1) punishment, or simply get caned. To be fair, cops were in a Catch22 situation responding to tremendous pressure to control the virus.
As workers spilled out in every possible direction shattering the lockdown, state governments in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh sensed a bigger human tragedy waiting to explode. Tens of thousands of workers fled with little money, nothing to eat or drink, not that they would have gotten any along the way. Reports cite cases of workers trying to flee for home village dangerously packed in containers, some in empty water tankers at a time when summer heat has begun to soar.
On the fourth day of the lockdown governments had no choice but to put some buses on roads to transport the workers to safety. Delhi held out promises of free food, a dole and shelter where possible for those staying back.
Post exodus, India lives in another fear, that of the virus reaching the remotest corners of the country, where it could be impossible to test, quarantine, hospitalize, save lives, or control the spread of the virus.
Unlike many other developed countries such as the USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, the U.K., India has been reasonably lucky so far. It has less than a thousand infected persons, and less than 25 deaths, compared with more than 100,000 cases in the U.S., and deaths touching 10,000 in Italy, out of total 600,000 cases globally, and about 28,000 deaths.
Part of India’s luck also comes from the low number of tests. As of March 27, India had conducted an abysmally low number of 28,000 tests in a population of 1.38 billion people. That, some experts say, could mask the number of reported deaths, and potential “human-bombs” roaming freely and infecting many more people than the authorities could ever anticipate or track.
The prime objective of the lockdown was to slow the spread of the virus and prevent pressure on its fragile healthcare system. The government initially restricted tests at government hospitals, but relented later on sensing their limited capacity. Two-thirds of all hospital beds are in the private sector, so it made sense to rope in every resource it could lay its hands on, just like requisitioning during a war.
The original source of virus entering the country was travelers from China, Iran, Italy and the UK. Between Jan. 15 and March 23, about 1.5 million passengers arrived in India from overseas. While, the government conducted body temperature checks at overcrowded airports, many passengers with any symptom took anti-fever tablets before de-boarding to avoid having to get admitted in municipal hospitals, infamous for their lack of hygiene.
Fear of social stigma is also pushing many to hide their illness. Cases of even a doctor dying of coronavirus came from a top hospital in Mumbai. He had a relative who traveled back from the U.K. or Italy. Such instance of suppression of facts increases the difficulty of monitoring and restricting the spread of the virus.
The practice of pasting a “Quarantine board” outside an affected person’s home, with name and other details, gets counter-productive with neighbors and others turning hostile.
Another area of challenge is the hutments. Here even in the best of times the less fortunate often have to pack themselves by the dozens in a single room. The danger is that even a single infection could spread the virus to millions in a matter of weeks. Half of Mumbai’s 18 million population lives in slums. Population percentage of slum dwellers in other top cities in the country may not vary significantly.
Any large scale spread of the virus would potentially be uncontrollable as India has a low 0.7 beds per population of one thousand compared with 3.4 for Italy, 8.3 for Germany and 6.5 for France, according to World Bank data. The information is not very recent and ground level facts could vary.
The situation looks even worse when we look at the numbers of ventilators required and those available.
According to a study by Brookings(2) in a worst-case scenario, according to one estimate at least, we may end up with 2.2 million cases in India by May 15, which implies that we will need 110,000 to 220,000 ventilators. We have no official figures on the number of ventilators available in the public sector, however, we arrive at an estimated figure using the number of hospital beds available — 713,986 total government beds, out of which 5% to 8% are ICU beds (35,699 to 57,119 ICU beds). Assuming that 50% of these ICU beds have ventilators, we arrive at an estimate of 17,850 to 25,556 ventilators in the country.
Three weeks of lockdown have challenges of its own for individuals and families. Besides drying up vegetable and fruits supplies, it is hugely problematic for any regular patient to get assistance, say of a dialysis, or sudden toothache.
Families are running out of fresh greens and end up paying a much higher price to any quality that comes at the street corner. Keeping children homebound and quiet is turning out to be another challenge, especially if life has to be balanced with elderly parents need for peace and space.
So, when life gets tough, turns to religion —
On Day 4, in order to lessen the burden of solitude, the government is replaying selective old religious epic serials such as Ramayana and Mahabharat on television to keep families from being restless. Hopefully the devout begin to see the virus an act of God, or maybe result of one’s karma, and not that of any government, anywhere in the world!
Astrologers unleashing themselves on social media predict changing stellar configurations would put an end to the virus soon.
The virus could face its doomsday on March 29, or April 2, or April 13, or April 23, among others…. depending on the astrologer one follows. The non-believers wouldn’t mind being proven wrong.
As of now there seems to be greater faith in the supernatural …
(1) Murga is the Hindi word for rooster. The punished assumes the position resembling a rooster, by half-squatting in the air, then lopping the arms behind the knees to firmly hold the ears.
Sumit Sharma is a free-lance journalist based in Mumbai, India. He writes for several publications and has previously worked as a reporter at Bloomberg.