A man looks out of a window from a shanty in Mumbai on April 3, 2020, as India continues in nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Himanshu Bhatt / NurPhoto via AFP Forum

MUMBAI – Of the nearly 3 billion people worldwide under lockdown, 1.2 billion are in India in the largest peacetime curfew in history.

India has been in a 21-day lockdown since March 25 in an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19. No schools, restaurants, theaters, parties, outings, post offices, malls, barbershops, gyms, not even a walk in the park.

In financial capital Mumbai – no tickets to be acquired, not even traffic-cop tickets. No traffic.

No plane, train, or bus tickets (public transport only for emergency services workers). India stopped all international passenger arrivals on March 22 and ended domestic flights two days later.

Since March 20, the only ticket I have received was from the local grocery store (more on that later in this article).

Only grocery shops and pharmacies are open. Even these are shut in the three sealed zones in Mumbai: Prabhadevi Colony, the Jamblipada area in Kalina and Worli-Koliwada.

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the city administrator, door-delivers necessities to residents in such sealed zones that are fully closed to entry and exit. 

We now live the real-life version of virus-contagion movies.

Containment zones

BMC has marked 191 areas in Mumbai for “containment.” They follow the central government’s Covid-19 containment measures: a 3-kilometer radius around the epicenter of a place reporting infection cases. This is to ensure quarantine protocols are followed in the zone.

Daily life has entered strange days in the new world order against the spread of this deadly disease. So, too, has grocery shopping in Mumbai, a city of more than 24 million people.

This writer visited the nearby Star Market grocery store on Wednesday to witness never-before routines: a queue ticket handed out to shoppers outside the gate. The queue graduates to social-distancing-inspired seating outside the grocery-store door:

A list of to-do’s, a temperature scan and hand-sanitizer squirt before entering:

“Please shop only for 15 minutes,” a store assistant politely told shoppers, “only two packets of biscuits of each brand. No limits on vegetables, fruits, groceries.” Most shelves were full, vegetable prices low – 20 rupees (26 US cents) per kilogram of tomatoes, thanks to supply outstripping demand with restaurants shut.

Most residents in this part of Mumbai order groceries online. This is a more fortunate part of the city, with fewer lockdown problems. 

The Star departmental store belongs to India’s Tata Group, a US$20 billion conglomerate, and it is well managed and well stocked. Photo: Raja Murthy / Asia Times

Not so everywhere. A media colleague in suburban Worli reported difficulties getting groceries. Police in containment zones were limiting the time people’s shopping times.

Anywhere can become a containment zone, any time.

‘Hope, not hunger’

The 21-day lockdown is far worse for migrant workers without income. Volunteer groups and community kitchens have joined the relief work for daily-wage earners.

The Maharashtra government has arranged for meals at 5 rupees from 201 state-run kitchens under its “Shiv Bhojan” program, halving the earlier token cost of 10 rupees (13 cents). 

Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray interacts with diners at a 5-rupee-per-meal eatery in Mumbai. Photo: Government of Maharashtra

Other states including Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand are offering similar schemes providing meals for 5 rupee – or for free.

Food-delivery services and the hospitality industry facing a struggle for survival as tourism businesses crash worldwide have morphed into frontline saviors. Zomato, Swiggy and Rebel Foods help to deliver free food to migrant and gig workers. Swiggy plans to double its “Hope, Not Hunger” relief program to 500,000 meals daily during the Covid-19 crisis.

Luxury hotel chains Oberoi Hotels and Tata Hotels are delivering free food daily. Tata has become the first five-star hotel group to offer hospitality for hospital warriors, a free stay for government-hospital doctors, nurses, and medical staff fighting Covid-19, including in Mumbai’s iconic Taj Mahal Palace:

Indrani Gupta, general manager of Hotel Taj President in Cuffe Parade, greeted her new medical guests from the Covid-19 frontline:

Humans caged, animals out

During the lockdown, people have not merely been disappearing from roads, folks have vanished from within residential buildings.

Fellow residents are not visible for days. No newspaper delivery, couriers, visitors, office staff. Folks can be in a lockdown within a lockdown.

This is a Mumbai I have never seen before in nearly 30 years as a resident. Marine Drive promenade during the day:

Photo: Courtesy: BMC
The Oval Maidan with gates shut for the first time.

With humans locked down, there have been rare sightings of wild deer, bison and other animals in city streets. Peacocks have been seen wandering in Mumbai’s Parsi (Khareghat) Colony Hughes Road.

Mumbai has the largest number of coronavirus-infected people in India. Fatalities are relatively low – so far. India needs to minimize the death rate. The sacrifice needed: Stay home, respect the lockdown.

Lockdown calls have emerged even from economy impresarios. A World Economic Forum study said that without lockdowns, peak mortality in three months could be 510,000 dead in the UK and 2.2 million in the US. The US government Coronavirus Task Force has quoted those numbers.

Candle in the wind of crisis

While it is true that the large majority of those infected with Covid-19 will not die from it, its very high contagion rate means that the global death toll has already exceeded 59,000 and has the potential to hit seven figures. It’s simple mathematics.

The economic costs of lockdowns to save lives will not be easy to accept, however, nor the mental costs of being cooped up at home for weeks.

To break that mental isolation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday asked people to go on to a balcony, to their front door, maintain social distance and light a candle or lamp or shine a mobile-phone light at 9pm on Sunday for nine minutes – solidarity against Covid-19.

I ignored a similar exercise on March 22 – I thought it all too much panicky fuss over a grand-daddy version of the common flu. Then came news of Italy’s daily death toll of 700. Reality hit, with the Covid-19 clock now ticking past 59,000 dead.

The light of hope is 228,923 people recovering out of 1.09 million infected with the coronavirus. As the saying goes, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

I found a candle to light at 9pm on Sunday, a little ray of humankind defying a dark, demonic dark wind.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos by Raja Murthy.