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Life in the time of corona – Cover Story News

If I keep washing my hands, China virus can be kept away. Seven-year-old Ankit Sehgal, who studies in a Delhi school, has learned this through public service announcements on television. He is not complaining that his school is shut; his parents have given him a smartphone to keep him occupied at home. The phone even has a hand wash reminder’ app which sends hourly notifications,Time to wash your hands’. Ankit does so diligently, singing Happy Birthday twice to ensure he has washed his skin clean of the Novel Coronavirus. On weekends, his parents take him for a treat to a Starbucks where he loves having his temperature checked by the thermal scanner. For Ankit, life in the time of coronavirus is normal, but you have to keep your hands clean. For the rest of the world, it is not that simple.

Illustration by Nilanjan Das

Lives are being lost, and lives are being turned upside down. From a few stray cases in February, India has seen a sharp spike in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19,151 as on March 18, while three people among them have succumbed to complications arising out of the disease. To prevent community transmission of the virus, India has gone into a shutdown, the likes of which the country has not seen in living memory. The arrival of international travellers from 33 European countries, including Turkey, has been banned, non-essential domestic travel stands drastically curtailed, businesses have come to a standstill, companies have asked employees to work from home, schools are shut, mall and multiplexes deserted and events and marriages are being rescheduled.

Ask Ashish Bohra, a 27-year-old wedding planner, who had to cancel his own wedding in Bahrain last week. He had invited 350 guests and 100 performing artists, including Kailash Kher. All our plans were crushed in a single day, he says.

Financial distress looms before Mayank Sagar, 25, a student at Jamia University in Delhi, who freelances with a movie editing firm in the capital to be able to pay his tuition fee. The production shutdown in Bollywood, he fears, will put him out of work.

The relative of a 68-year-old woman from West Delhi who died on March 14 is inconsolable because he did not get a chance to speak to her as she was in quarantine. We could not see her, or put tulsi or gangajal on her directly, he says. As with HIV or septicemia patients, the bodies of those who die of COVID-19 have to be cleaned with bleach, placed in body bags and cremated in an electric crematorium within two hours.

With the pandemic has come panic, and pandemonium. The demand for personal protective gear like masks and hazmat suits, as well as for sanitisers, soap and groceries, has shot up. BigBasket has seen demand double, with order values going up by 20 per cent on average. A spokesperson for Grofers reports a 400 per cent and 120 per cent increase in sales of hand sanitisers and hand wash, respectively. The Food and Drug Administration recently busted a fake hand sanitiser manufacturing unit in Haryana. Roughly 5,000 bottles were seized while some 2,500 bottles had already been sold. N99 masks have sold out in the country, while N95 masks are being sold at double the price in some shops. To cope with a shortage of masks, the government in Kerala has deployed convicted prisoners in the state to make washable and reusable cotton masks. Nearly 6,000 masks have been delivered to the government so far. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recently tweeted pictures of the first batch of face masks manufactured by prisoners at Thiruvananthapuram Jail. They are priced at Rs 15-20 apiece.

Social stigma, too, has reared its ugly head in some places. In Kochi, Pune and Delhi, expats who have been living in India for over a year have reportedly been asked to vacate rental homes or to not enter shops. Sarang Patil (name changed), 38, was almost thrown out of his home in Kalyan, Mumbai, after his neighbours came to know that he had returned from COVID-19-affected Dubai, where he works for a private company. Patil tried to tell them that he had been tested at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on arrival and had tested negative, but to no avail. It was only when he went to the local civic hospital the next day and tested negative yet again that he was allowed to return. Peter Tseng, who owns a chain of Pan Asian restaurants in the country, notes that bookings have fallen by 50 per cent at his outlets in Kochi and Gurugram. His customers now also want to be reassured that their chef is not a China-returnee.

Elderly people in small towns fear they will be ostracised if they show flu-like symptoms in public. I have been sick for a week but hold back a sneeze because I do not want the community to cast us out. Now I have told my children. But hospitals, even the ones we called in Lucknow, say it is just a cold. In the news, they say this is a disease which targets the old. I feel very scared that I may die, says Ajit Jain, a 63-year-old from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.

Meanwhile, the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi has become a site for the panicked and alarmed residents of the national capital. Groups of people coughing or suffering from fever arrive almost daily to be tested for the virus, only to be told that they don’t fit the bill for testing. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has opted for the random sampling method instead of expanding the test criteria. It will not test those who have not travelled abroad or met anyone who has. India has so far tested close to 12,000 people. Dr K.K. Aggarwal, former president of the Indian Medical Association, says, If you do not test people, how will you know if the disease has reached community-level transmission and which are the potential danger areas? The ICMR has already said that community spread is inevitable; if that is the case, why the delay in testing?

What ICMR did announce on March 17 was that it will rope in private labs for faster testing time. A private test is estimated to cost anything between Rs 9,000 andRs 12,000, while it costs the government close to Rs 6,000 per test, though there is pressure to make testing free. The Delhi government has also begun offering hotel quarantine facilities, each room costing about Rs 3,000 per night, for those who don’t wish to stay in public quarantine.

At this point, there is no certainty if there has been a community spread of the disease since India is not mandatorily quarantining every foreign returnee or testing or following up on asymptomatic travellers (who could still be carriers of the virus). Meghna Bhasin, 28, a resident of Panchsheel Park in New Delhi, who returned from France on March 16, says, What upset many of us was the lack of caution at the Delhi airport. People who were really unwell were asking why they had to sit in a closed space with others. The people handling the situation had not been briefed on protocol, many of them came near us without mask or protective gear; we could have easily infected them.

Preethi Chandran, 38, a software engineer, who returned from a holiday to Dubai last week, had the opposite experience when she landed in Kochi. We were screened for temperature and symptoms. I had a few questions about home quarantine, which the doctor answered. They handed out water and information kits while we were waiting to be screened. I have now isolated myself at home for two weeks, she says.

The quarantined apart, those working out of home or children on enforced vacation are grappling with problems of a different sort. Jaspreet Singh, 42, who works with a software company in Jaipur, has been working from home for the past few days. His 10-year-old son is also home. I have a 2BHK house with a small living and dining area. There is no space for me to work in peace. I would be writing a line of code or attending a business call and my son starts screaming in the background or banging the door shut. It is very difficult to manage like this, he says. Singh’s wife and mother are also complaining. Having him and their child at home has cut into their leisure time. Earlier, we would spend the entire afternoon watching television or chatting with friends. Now we have to cook three meals and find ways to keep our son engaged so that he does not disturb my husband. I haven’t been to the beauty parlour in a week, says Avni, Singh’s wife. Families across the country can sympathise with Avni’s ordeal, as keeping children occupied has become a mandatory chore. E-learning providers such as BYJU’s and Coursera are now looking to partner with schools so that some lessons and activities can be provided online.

Photo: K Asif

Go for some cold or no-bake cooking, advises Amol Arora, vice-chairman and managing director, Shemford Group of Futuristic Schools. Subscribe to activity boxes consisting of innovative games and experiments on art, science, general knowledge and mathematics. Even if your child is not going to school, she can spend time with books. You can get her a membership to a nearby library.

This cannot be good news for an economy already tottering at an anaemic 4.7 per cent growth in the third quarter. Many believe G DP growth for FY20 will be sub-5 per cent. Growth in the first quarter of FY21 will be equally lacklustre. The impact of COVID-19 on the Indian economy could be between 0.5 and 1 per cent for the first quarter of 2021, says Madan Sabnavis, chief economist with ratings agency Care Ratings. This is because multiple sectors, including banking, will be hit, since non-performing assets or bad loans could spike as industries underperform.

Meanwhile, stock markets have seen a bloodbath of their own in the past few days. Even as US Federal Reserve brought down interest rates to near zero, it failed to calm markets, with Wall Street registering its steepest fall since 1987 on March 16. In India, benchmark indices fell 1,709 points on March 18, taking the Sensex to 28,869 points from 38,000 just 12 days ago. Never mind that the Reserve Bank of India had just two days before announced measures to improve long-term liquidity in the banking system or that crude oil prices have fallen more than 30 per cent, which could significantly reduce India’s import bill and ease the current account deficit and inflation.

Key sectors continue to be spooked by the outbreak. Supply chain disruptions apart, lack of demand is affecting sales of mobile phones, electronics and automotives. Auto sales in the first 11 months of the current fiscal saw a drop of 12.7 per cent over the previous fiscal. With just one month left, the decline is expected to put pressure on the overall sales for the year and restrict growth going forward,’ says a Care Ratings research note.

The aviation and hospitality businesses, perhaps, are paying the heaviest price for the global aff­liction. We have almost lost the first quarter of international travel because of COVID-19, and I think we’ll lose the dom­estic too, unless we can arrest spread of the disease, says Kapil Kaul, CEO, India and Middle East, Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), a market research firm. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts losses of $113 billion in revenues for airlines globally. The Wadia Group-controlled airline GoAir has shut down its international operations till April 15 and initiated a short-term and temporary leave without pay programme for some staff including cabin crew. IndiGo Airlines and Air India too have cancelled several international flights as has Vistara. Most domestic airlines will be hit hard since they have cash positions that may not last beyond a week, says Kaul.

The drop in the number of travellers is also affecting city cabs. In Karnataka, there has been a 50 per cent drop in the demand for daily rides, especially in Bengaluru. Around 80 per cent of private buses and taxis in the state are standing idle, according to the Karnataka State Travel Operators’ Association. Hotels, too, are seeing cancellations of bookings, as events are cancelled or postponed. In Delhi and Mumbai, malls, multiplexes and auditoriums have been shut down under government orders. The Federation of the Karnataka Chambers of Commerce & Industry estimates a Rs 2,000 crore loss for business in the state as over 50 malls, 55 multiplexes, 600 single-screen theatres, over 100 supermarkets, pubs and some 150 small-scale units have been shut down.

Meat and poultry is another segment being savaged. Rumours of animal to human spread of the disease resulted in a 70 per cent drop in sales in Karnataka. Chicken prices too crashed, according to the Karnataka Poultry Farmers & Breeders Association. In West Bengal, losses from the poultry business could hit Rs 500 crore. Beef exports halved in February, causing a Rs 1,500 crore loss in revenue.

Apparel exports have been hit hard as leading fashion stores in the US, Europe and Latin America have shut and orders have been cancelled. Ready-made garments (RMG) exports from India stood at $16.27 billion in 2018-19 and $8 billion during April-September 2019.

The disease is also beginning to hurt small-scale businesses. In Ludhiana, Onkar Pahwa of Avon Cycles says distributors are reneging on their orders while the knitwear industry is held up as it sources nearly 70 per cent of the fibre and almost all accessories from China. There is uncertainty in demand, and hardly any clarity on supplies, says Vinod Thapar, chairman, Ludhiana Knitwear Club. Many players are now sourcing from the domestic market. But it is expensive.

For the moment, though, the priority is to manage the community spread of the disease and allay anxiety. The fear of quarantine and lack of faith in the public healthcare system have led to people running away from facilities or hiding, like in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Punjab. The public needs to feel taken care of, says Nand Kumar, a psychiatrist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. Right now, there are too many unanswered questions about the disease. There is also the fear of quarantine. To make quarantine a less frightening experience, one should talk about its altruistic aspect. For some, the fear of quarantine has been extreme. A 35-year-old man returned from Sydney on March 18 and had been shifted to New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital as a suspected COVID-19 case. While waiting to undergo a test, he jumped off the seventh floor the same night and was pronounced dead. Investigations are on to ascertain the exact cause of his suicide.

History shows that every pandemic has changed soci­ety. It is too early to say what will be the lasting impact of Covid-19. However, a few changes are already making their way into everyday life. A heightened awareness of the importance of hygiene, of respecting public health protocols, for starters. The crisis has also brought together communities as people search for advice and support. Be it musicians like Bengali Aunty or Yanboy releasing online videos on Covid-19 precautions or schools and societies reaching out to the families of those who have tested positive, there is comfort in knowing no one is alone in their fight against Covid-19. n

with Shwweta Punj, Anilesh S. Mahajan, Kiran D. Tare, Romita Datta, Aravind Gowda and Rohit Parihar.

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