A man wearing a protective face mask sitting on a special bus taking people to a quarantine facility amid concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi on March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sajjad Hussain

India could escape a worldwide recession this year, said a United Nations trade report. But with a comprehensive 21-day coronavirus lockdown in place since March 25, the planet’s second most populous nation and fifth largest economy faces massive challenges.

A week of India in lockdown fared better than feared – though with problems unfolding:

  • Supply of essential commodities to 1.2 billion people confined home. Thousands of trucks periodically stuck at state borders are choking supply lines.
  • Mass migration of workers unemployed in cities returned to their villages or home towns. They could be carrying coronavirus to rural India, a sitting duck without facilities to handle a pandemic.
  • Ensuring millions of daily wage earners in cities have food and shelter.
  • India’s coronavirus war needs more hospital beds, medical staff, ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • A frozen economy needing more stimulus. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a 1.7 trillion rupees (US$22.5 billion) relief package, but it is not enough.

Since India’s first coronavirus case was detected on January 29, 35 had died of Covid-19 as of March 31. Of the 1,397 reported cases (1,239 active), 123 people recovered. But how many cases lurk undetected? We could know the extent of the contagion in this next critical fortnight.

We can thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day lockdown. And his decision could be a primary reason for the low number of Covid-19 victims in the country so far. But doomsday predictions say India’s coronavirus storm is coming.

Modi apologized to the country on Sunday for taking the “harsh measures that needed to be taken.” Suffering for 21 days is needed to avoid suffering for 21 years, he said.

Before he announced a nationwide lockdown at 8pm on March 25, India was already in a 14-day lockdown. Mumbai was en route to being a ghost town, as it is now. The only passersby I saw at Jamshedji Tata Road at about 4pm from the balcony were two female police constables wearing masks.

But in happier times, this busy road from Churchgate Station was a river of traffic – office workers bustled by, street food patrons munched vada-pau, Mumbai’s spicy burger, all day.

Mumbai en route to being a ghost town with sparse evening peak hour traffic on Marine Drive on March 18, before India went into coronavirus-lockdown. Photo: Raja Murthy

Worst of times, best of humanity

Now I feel like an extra in a calamity movie – a silent movie bar a dog barking and birds chirping. It’s been days since I heard a car honking or neighborhood children playing.

But the worst of times brings out the best of humanity worldwide. So too in India. Volunteer groups are feeding the homeless and migrant workers. The Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund received a generous response.

Students donated Rs 50 (less than US$1), companies donated millions. Movie actors and sports stars pitched in, with Mumbai-based cricketer Rohit Sharma donating Rs 8 million ($1.06 million), including for taking care of street dogs.

As in the US, India’s private and public sector companies are tweaking capacities to fight coronavirus on a war footing. The Indian Railways is converting 5,000 coaches into isolation rooms. Automobile giant Mahindra & Mahindra is making ventilators.

In another important initiative, Apollo Hospitals started a project offering hotel rooms for coronavirus-infected people needing self-isolation. They also get hygienic food and telemedicine.

Called Project Stay I, it involves hotels – Ginger Hotels, Lemon Tree Hotels, Oyo – food delivery service Zomato and India’s largest pharmaceutical company Biocon. State Bank of India, Hindustan Unilever and Deutsche Bank are funders. This project essentially serves coronavirus-infected people in families with limited home space.

Police near a barricade at the entrance to a residential area where several patients tested positive for the virus during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Mumbai on March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Indranil Mukherjee

OYO chief executive officer Ritesh Agarwal said his hotel rooms could also be offered to doctors, nurses, first respondents and paramedics treating coronavirus victims. Reports surfaced of these courageous healthcare workers being harassed, even thrown out on the street, by half-witted landlords and housing societies.

The worst of times also bring out the worst in some. See Twitter trend #COVIDIOTS.

#StayHomeSaveLives

Day 6 of the 21-day lockdown. India and financial capital Mumbai are more than less following President of Ghana Akufo-Addo’s coronavirus reminder: “We know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life. Stay at home.”

If you are not working for essential services, go out during the coronavirus lockdown only for groceries or an emergency.

“Covid-19 is the most transmissible disease we have ever encountered,” said heart surgeon Dr Devi Shetty, the founder of the Narayana Health hospitals. And he knows a thing or two about saving lives, having conducted more than 15,000 heart surgeries. His hospital-chain offers surgeries free to those who cannot pay.

We could be a coronavirus carrier until tested negative. “Stay home saves lives” is trending on Twitter to both saving one’s life and stopping us from infecting others with death.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003 and The Statesman since 1990.

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