Coronavirus: Many in limbo amid 21-day lockdown

People practising social distancing while queueing outside a medical store in Allahabad yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Migrant workers and their families boarding a truck to return to their villages yesterday after the lockdown in Ahmedabad.
People queueing to buy groceries at a mall in Maharashtra state yesterday. The announcement on the lockdown unleashed a wave of panic among Indians, with many rushing out to grocery shops to buy essential goods. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
People practising social distancing while queueing outside a medical store in Allahabad yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Migrant workers and their families boarding a truck to return to their villages yesterday after the lockdown in Ahmedabad.
Police checking on motorists during the lockdown in Guwahati, Assam state, yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
People practising social distancing while queueing outside a medical store in Allahabad yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Migrant workers and their families boarding a truck to return to their villages yesterday after the lockdown in Ahmedabad.
People practising social distancing while queueing outside a medical store in Allahabad yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
People practising social distancing while queueing outside a medical store in Allahabad yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Migrant workers and their families boarding a truck to return to their villages yesterday after the lockdown in Ahmedabad.
Migrant workers and their families boarding a truck to return to their villages yesterday after the lockdown in Ahmedabad. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Alam Rahman has just about enough savings to see him and his family through for about 15 days.

The owner of a roadside tea stall in Noida, one of Delhi's satellite cities, is worried that he will not be able to pay rent on his house and other expenses after that.

"I am not sure if I can open my tea stall again," he told The Straits Times a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day countrywide lockdown on Tuesday night.

Even if he does open his stall, it is unlikely to be of much help as the number of customers has fallen from over 100 a day to just around 10 amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of his customers were migrant daily-wage workers who now have no work and have either left for their villages, or are hunkering down and saving for the tough times ahead. "I have to figure a way out," he said stoically.

Across India, millions of migrant workers like Mr Rahman, who is from the state of West Bengal, now find themselves suddenly stranded without work and with no means to return home.

Some of the desperate among them have even resorted to taking the long walk home.

Indian television channel NDTV yesterday reported on a group of around 20 men who had been asked to vacate the accommodation provided by their employer.

They set out from Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow for their home 80km away - a journey that will take around 36 hours on foot.

Walking home, however, is not an option for a Kerala gardener ST spoke to and who did not want to be named. He comes from a village nearly 2,000km away in Odisha.

With no work for more than a week, he has been forced to dip into his savings that he would have sent to his family. "I am not going to send them any money this month. I am not even sure I will be able to do so the coming month too. The government should think of some way to help us get back to our homes."

Even well-heeled Indians are unsure of how they will see themselves through the 21-day lockdown, with concerns over the supply of food and medicine.

Mr Modi's address imposing a "curfew-like" lockdown on Tuesday night, without specifying how people can gain access to essential goods, had unleashed a wave of panic among Indians, with many rushing out to grocery shops.

Social distancing norms were tossed to the wind as large crowds crammed India's grocery stores.

Mr Shantnu Prakash, a Bengaluru-based professional with a firm that retails lifestyle products, was one of those out on Tuesday.

"I was ready for a lockdown for probably around eight days but not 21. One was not sure what was going to happen the next day," he said, adding that he stepped out to get supplies of rice and flour.

The first store he went to had run out of supplies and the second had a long queue. "I didn't want to risk it and went to a smaller store nearby and was lucky to get what I wanted."

There has also been confusion over who is allowed to venture out during the lockdown.

For instance, despite being one of the "essential services" exempted from the lockdown, several food delivery firms have complained of harassment by police.

Different state governments have announced measures to ensure essential commodities reach homes. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, the government has announced it will deliver essential commodities directly to homes.

The Delhi government has announced an assistance of 5,000 rupees (S$95) for construction workers, as well as free food for the homeless and needy at its night shelters.

It remains to be seen how well these schemes work as the lockdown progresses.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'Many in limbo amid 21-day lockdown'. Print Edition | Subscribe