Coping with Covid-19: Lockdown unleashes India's community spirit

As the coronavirus cuts a swathe through Asia, The Straits Times bureaus report on how governments, hospitals and the man in the street are rising to the battle. In the last of a multi-part series, India Bureau Chief Nirmala Ganapathy reports on how local communities are helping the poorest and most vulnerable, while India Correspondent Debarshi Dasgupta looks at a city that has become a model in controlling the spread of the virus, and India Correspondent Rohini Mohan examines concerns over surveillance apps.

Sikh community volunteers preparing food to be distributed at a temple in Mumbai. Across India, people are coming together to help feed the poor and less privileged. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Labourers and daily-wage workers waiting to receive food
Photographer Mustafa Quraishi fills the back of his Isuzu truck with around 1,000 packets of food to distribute to the poor in Gurugram on each of his multiple trips. PHOTO: ISHAN TANKHA
Sikh community volunteers preparing food to be distributed at a temple in Mumbai. Across India, people are coming together to help feed the poor and less privileged. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Labourers and daily-wage workers waiting to receive food
Volunteers distributing food to people in need on the outskirts of Amritsar earlier this week, during India’s nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Sikh community volunteers preparing food to be distributed at a temple in Mumbai. Across India, people are coming together to help feed the poor and less privileged. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Labourers and daily-wage workers waiting to receive food
Volunteers packing grocery items to be distributed to the poor and homeless in Ahmedabad. The lockdown has been particularly hard on India’s poor, who have little or no savings to stock up on essentials at a time of wage disruptions. PHOTO: REUTERS
Sikh community volunteers preparing food to be distributed at a temple in Mumbai. Across India, people are coming together to help feed the poor and less privileged. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Labourers and daily-wage workers waiting to receive food
Sikh community volunteers preparing food to be distributed at a temple in Mumbai. Across India, people are coming together to help feed the poor and less privileged. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Sikh community volunteers preparing food to be distributed at a temple in Mumbai. Across India, people are coming together to help feed the poor and less privileged. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE Labourers and daily-wage workers waiting to receive food
Labourers and daily-wage workers waiting to receive food from volunteers in New Delhi. The first few days of India’s lockdown saw an exodus of poor migrant workers from the cities. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Photographer Mustafa Quraishi drives 100km to 120km every day amid the world's largest lockdown.

He is among hundreds of volunteers putting themselves on the front line, distributing food to the very poor who are hit hardest by India's three-week lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.

The 40-year-old fills the back of his Isuzu truck - a vehicle that his friends joke has finally come in useful - with around 1,000 packets of food prepared by private kitchens on each trip.

Mr Quraishi makes many trips to provide lunch and dinner to the poor, who live invisibly amid pockets of great affluence in Gurugram, a financial and technology hub dotted with high-rise office buildings and luxury condominiums.

He is always accompanied by a policeman to prevent mobs of hungry people making a mad dash for the food and water.

"A woman who went to distribute food packets without a policeman was mobbed by some 200 hungry people the other day. She just about managed to drive away from the situation," said Mr Quraishi, who runs Q&M Visuals, a photography firm.

He is part of a pool of around 400 volunteers in an initiative which sees the local administration, police, non-profits, private individuals and companies joining forces to provide the poor with cooked meals, dry provisions and masks. They also spread awareness on measures like social distancing.

"When the lockdown was announced (on March 24), I sat down and thought something had to be done. When someone posted on Facebook asking for volunteers on the second day of the lockdown, I joined," said Mr Quraishi, whose own work has come to a grinding halt amid the lockdown.

"It (volunteering) just gives me satisfaction that I am doing something worthwhile."

The lockdown, according to a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research, has substantially slowed down the pace of transmission of the virus in the world's second most populous country. India would have had 820,000 cases by April 15, but currently has 6,412 confirmed cases with 199 deaths.

Still, the lockdown has been particularly hard on the poor, who have little or no savings to stock up on essentials at a time of wage disruptions. The first few days saw an exodus of poor migrant workers from the cities - the first and immediate wave of those laid off and unable to pay rent or buy provisions - making a dash by foot for their village homes, hundreds of kilometres away in many cases, where at least a roof over their heads was guaranteed.

  • THE NUMBERS

  • 6,412

    Total number of infections in India as of yesterday.

    199

    Total number of deaths.

Some made it back home. Others were stopped as local governments sealed borders and they were diverted to community shelters or back to their locality. Some 28,000 relief camps and shelters have been set up for migrant workers.

MIDDLE CLASS STEPS UP

Amid stories of distress among the poorer sections of society, middle-class India has, perhaps for the first time, mobilised in large numbers to help the poor.

This has ranged from distributing food packets to donating money and even setting up temporary kitchens to provide food.

Help from the middle class as well as large and small private companies came in at a time when the slow-moving bureaucracy in some places was still scrambling to put systems in place to feed the poor.

In places where government implementation has continued to be weak or where categories of the poor fall through the cracks of the system due to lack of documentation, private individuals have continued to try and fill the gaps.

"The middle-class mobilisation is probably borne out of compassion. It is also giving positive direction to the anxiety and panic (over the virus). It's a good coping mechanism," said Dr Sunita Walia, a medical doctor and social activist in the state of Rajasthan, who along with around 50 friends set up a kitchen to cook food for the poor.

As government help has expanded with food and cash transfers, she and her group of friends have shut down the kitchen and are now distributing rice and other provisions to people who remain ineligible for any government benefits.

"A lot of people have come up with their own programmes. Everybody is trying," she said.

 
 

LACK OF ACCESS TO CLEAN WATER

Even as multiple efforts are on to feed the poor and provide a safety net, they still remain disadvantaged when it comes to safeguarding themselves against the highly contagious virus. Clean water remains a distant dream for millions of poor Indians.

Alarm bells went off on April 1 when a man died of the coronavirus in Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum, in the financial capital of Mumbai. Another 21 cases have emerged from the slum, where even something as basic as repeated washing of hands, which is key to tackling the virus, is a near impossibility.

More than 163 million people in India do not have access to clean water, the highest number in the world, according to a study by WaterAid, a global advocacy group on water and sanitation.

In many cities, people, especially the poorer ones, live in cramped informal settlements with either limited or no access to piped water. They rely on tankers and borewells for their limited supply and use shared public toilets, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to an outbreak of an infectious disease.

"Will they use whatever little water is available to them for daily purposes such as drinking, cooking and bathing, or washing hands repeatedly?" said Mr Samrat Basak, the director of the Urban Water Programme at World Resources Institute India. "In such cases, washing hands becomes a luxury."

ECONOMIC IMPACT

As the poor struggle for basics like water and food, the middle-and upper-class Indians who remain safely ensconced in their homes are not quite immune to worries about jobs and businesses.

The lockdown has halted all economic activities in the country. Supply chains, even for essential commodities, have been disrupted, with reports of migrant truck drivers leaving their vehicles at state borders or factories and fleeing to their home villages, fearful of catching the virus and of police action to enforce the lockdown.

Already, some firms have announced salary cuts, and more job losses are expected in the coming weeks across various sectors.

The Indian Express newspaper has announced a 10 per cent to 30 per cent cut in salaries, with top bosses taking a 100 per cent cut. Vendors in many places are refusing to pick up newspapers and people are cancelling subscriptions amid fears that the highly contagious virus survives on newsprint and can be spread on contact.

A poll of 200 CEOs by industry body Confederation of Indian Industry shows the majority of respondents expect a sharp fall in demand and revenue, with 32 per cent forecasting job cuts in the range of 15 per cent to 30 per cent.

"Those working in the private sector face pay cuts as every company will be looking to see where to cut costs by cutting salaries. For instance, import-export has come to a halt, so people working in some firms are being paid 10 per cent of their salary as a token," said Mr Kris Lakshmikanth, founder and chief executive of The Head Hunters India, a boutique executive search firm. "My feeling is that job cuts will start taking place from the end of April. Initially, it will not be openly done but people would be told informally to look out for jobs. Those in the middle class are definitely not sure what will happen to them."

WHAT NEXT?

Meanwhile, the lockdown is seen to have bought time for India to put systems in place to tackle the virus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hinted at an extension of the lockdown beyond April 14, amid predictions that the South Asian country's infection peak in some parts will come by the end of the month or in the first two weeks of May.

Already, the state of Odisha has announced it will extend the lockdown till April 30 even as Mr Modi asked states to look into the staggered lifting of restrictions.

State governments have also started sealing off outbreak hot spots, disallowing people from stepping out of their houses even for essential items.

"We will continue to focus on 'over-preparedness' at the district level, and on surveillance, contact tracing and patient management. This includes enhancing supply of isolation beds, ICU beds, ventilators and PPE sets," said Mr Vikas Swarup of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Experts have said that under the next phase, irrespective of the lockdown, India must focus on ramping up testing, quickly identifying cases and strengthening the country's health facilities.

The government has been working towards this goal but many believe India still does not have a complete picture of the virus since testing rates have been low.

India is testing 18,000 people every day in a population of 1.3 billion, and is looking to ramp up testing to 100,000.

"Testing is the first priority, second is scientific tracing and treatment. We need to augment our secondary healthcare system, which is the district hospitals. Because 80 per cent (of future cases) won't require specialised care but just temperature control and fever management," said Dr Binod Kumar Patro of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Bhubaneswar.

"So that the load on our main hospitals is less and they can focus on the very ill. This is also an opportunity for us to augment our healthcare system."

Among those who have been left behind in cities, the only thought at this point is to somehow go home.

Ms Noor Jehan, who is from West Bengal and works as a maid at four homes in Gurugram, has not seen her three-year-old daughter in two years. The child lives with Ms Noor's mother in her home village. "I just want to go home and see my child. I can't sleep at night and I am having a lot of anxiety," said Ms Noor, from her one-room place.

"Once the lockdown is lifted, I am going home."

• Additional reporting by Debarshi Dasgupta

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 11, 2020, with the headline 'Lockdown unleashes India's community spirit'. Subscribe