A taxi driver for six years now, Guwahati’s Ramjan Ali says “meeting strangers” is a part of his job. And in the times of COVID-19, he has no choice but to be “extra-careful”. That involves minimum contact with his customer, including conversation. “I generally avoid looking back, or making small-talk. My eyes are fixed on the road,” said Ali, seated behind the wheel, as he ferries customers around Guwahati on a Wednesday morning. A black cloth mask, he bought for Rs 50, is affixed around his mouth.
On Friday, news of Bhutan’s first confirmed coronavirus case — a 76-year-old tourist from USA — put Assam on alert. The patient’s travel history, which included a seven-day cruise on the Brahmaputra and a night stay at a five-star hotel in Guwahati, was splashed across social media and local news channels that evening. It was then that Ali, who is employed by an app-based taxi service, made a beeline for the market. There he bought ten cloth masks, priced Rs 50 apiece, and ‘several’ bottles of hand sanitiser from the chemist next door.
While 60 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in India, towns and cities across the country, even where no cases have been reported positive, have seen a surge in purchases of items, especially hand sanitisers and masks, believed by many to be effective preventive measures.
In Kolkata, for example, traders of medical equipment and employees at medical shops have been struggling to meet the growing demand for surgical masks and hand sanitisers, despite no COVID-19 cases in the city. (Click here to follow our full coverage of coronavirus outbreak)
In central Kolkata, in close proximity to the Calcutta Medical College, shops had run out of surgical masks. An employee at K.R. Lynch and Co. in Chittaranjan Avenue said there had been no supply of face masks for the past 1.5 months and neither did they know when they would be available next. A five-minute-walk away, at the shop P. Bhogilal Pvt Ltd, there were no face masks or sanitisers available either.
In Chennai’s T Nagar, a One Plus mobile outlet kept hand sanitisers inside the store for visitors to use before checking out the phones on display. Yet, in other parts of the city such as Pondy Bazaar, stores had run out of hand sanitisers.
In the heart of Guwahati, one of the city’s biggest pharmacies, had neither masks nor sanitisers in stock on Wednesday morning. “I have never seen hand sanitisers purchased in these quantities and so quickly,” said Nikunja Talukdar, who has been running the pharmacy since 1998. “On Saturday at 930 pm, I got three cartons of sanitisers, and by Sunday noon, we were sold out,” he said. “N-95 masks, surgical masks and regular cloth masks are sold out too. Even the wholesale markets are selling it to us at double the price.”
From ‘staying safe’ to ‘panic buying’
As masks and sanitisers fly off the shelves in India, and across the world, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised that masks should be only worn by those with symptoms or those who are looking after someone who may have COVID-19. On March 2, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan had also said there was no “need to wear masks in order to ward off infection.” While hand sanitisers, in which alcohol content is more than 60 per cent, are effective, the US Centers for Disease Control “recommends washing hands with soap and water whenever possible.”
Yet, people like taxi driver Ali — whose only source for updates is local news, Whatsapp and Facebook — are convinced that masks are necessary to guard themselves against the virus. “I wanted to buy the N-95 mask but I could not afford it,” he said, adding that he is careful not to fiddle with his mask too frequently, “It was uncomfortable for the first two days, but I am used to it now.”
The 35-year-old explained that he insisted he and his family wears masks because for people like him, there is no option to skip work since his salary is calculated on a per day basis. “How will we eat otherwise? We have to be careful,” he said.
Coronavirus outbreak: Click here to follow LIVE updates
At the other end of the country, in Hyderabad, where a 24-year-old techie was tested positive on March 1, a young musician, travelling on the metro, echoed Ali’s thoughts. “There is a COVID patient in Hyderabad and he has travelled in the city for days. I don’t want to take any chances,” said Sidhu the musician, through his mask, which cost him Rs 25. “I will wear it whenever I venture out of home,” he said. Another alert commuter, Shyam, said he had purchased four N-95 masks. “Every four days I am changing it. I have a bad cold and cough. So I don’t want people giving me dirty looks,” he said.
A ‘rise’ and a ‘dip’
In Bengaluru, “panic buying” of masks and sanitisers have resulted in most medical stores in the city running out of stock. These are not individual purchases alone. “While we used to sell not more than 10-12 bottles of sanitisers per month, the numbers have risen to over 100 bottles per day since last week. Mostly, companies are ordering the same in bulk in a bid to keep their employees away from getting affected,” said G Mahesh, proprietor of Yasho Pharma, Residency Road.
Meanwhile, some vendors like Venu SN from Koramangala 8th Block are taking desperate measures, including ordering sanitisers online due to acute shortage in city stock. “We have no option but to meet the demands of our regular clients and hence, I had to order these online. Even e-commerce sites are using the situation to their benefit, selling each piece at Rs 399 now, masking the original price of Rs 199,” he said.
However, the government’s clarifications have not completely fallen on deaf ears. In Hyderabad, Kishan Murari Shetty, general secretary of the Greater Hyderabad Retail Medical Shops Association, said the demand for both masks and sanitisers “had come down of late.” “The Rs 2 surgical masks were being sold by suppliers at Rs 30-40 but ever since the government made it clear that people need not wear masks, the demand has come down. Sanitisers are still sell well but less compared to a few weeks ago,” he said.
At one of the busiest medical stores near NIMS hospital in Punjagutta, a medical store executive said his shop sold close to 2,000 N-95 masks last Wednesday and Thursday but sales have dropped now. “Earlier no one used to ask for any face masks. Because we are next to NIMS hospital, we would sell 400-500 masks a month. Now, the demand has suddenly gone up and come down as quickly,” he said, alleging that local manufacturers were keen on exporting masks to earn a quick buck.
Even Bengaluru’s G Mahesh pointed out that the demand for N-95 masks was slowing down since Monday, courtesy repeated messages aired by the Karnataka health department asking people not wear masks unless they were suffering from cold, fever or cough.
Businesses hit, vows to go veg
While the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) chief G S G Ayyangar confirmed the infection doesn’t spread through chicken and seafood, there are many who have started avoiding non-vegetarian food.
Bengaluru college student Radhika Nair said she was avoiding non-vegetarian food as directed by her paying-guest (PG) facility warden. “Our PG has stopped serving non-veg dishes since March 1. We have been reminded not to have non-veg from outside as well,” she said.
After news on COVID-19 cholera emerged from Bengaluru, the business of chicken vendors were affected to an extent. According to Siddaraju G, a meat stall owner in Kathalipalya, while the dip in sales started mid-February, the hit has been most felt in the last couple of days.
“While chicken was sold at Rs 200 per kilogram till last week, owing to lesser demand for the same, we are forced to sell it at Rs 160 per kg this week. Even restaurants that used to order in bulk have brought down their orders,” he said.
At the same time, there has been a fall in the number of visitors to most malls in Bengaluru, since Monday, when a 46-year-old techie was first tested positive for COVID-19 in the city.
“During most hours across the day, we have seen a steep fall in the number of visitors. Even though the number of visitors are high during evenings, we are witnessing a noticeable reduction in the number of visitors,” Dhanraj Mani, a security officer of a prominent mall in east Bengaluru said.
The situation is no different in other parts of the city as well. “Most of us in this stand are getting not more than four trips since Monday while the number used to be 15-20 on a daily basis from visitors to this mall. We are forced to run our vehicles around the area to find passengers, mostly resulting in losses,” Chetan Dev, an auto-driver in Koramangala said.
Coronavirus: How to quarantine yourself
But in some areas, the effect is mixed. For example, in Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar, it is business as usual courtesy the newly inaugurated Pedestrian Plaza. A parking attendant said though footfall had reduced in the mornings due to the onset of summer, there was no conceivable decrease in the number of shoppers thronging T Nagar in the evenings.
Tackling the virus
A common appeal to the public from the government across states, both affected and non-affected, is not to panic. On Monday, Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted that the state health department had traced 400 people the American tourist had come in contact with. “Teams of doctors and microbiologists have been keeping a close watch on these people who have been quarantined,” he wrote. “Appeal to all in Assam not to panic and observe all protocols including personal hygiene.”
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa had Tuesday said wearing masks “should not become a fashion statement” stressing on the importance of maintaining up self-hygiene.
In airports around the country — from Manipur to Bengaluru to Kolkata — thermal screenings are being conducted. In Manipur, the health department has started issuing loud speaker announcement to avoid mass-gatherings especially during Yaoshang, or the five-day-long spring festival currently underway in the state.
In Kolkata airport, at least 14 doctors and 35 paramedics are available, working round the clock. All international airlines have been instructed to provide two forms to disembarking passengers to provide details of their travel history, one of which will have to be submitted to officials of the Airport Health Organisation, followed by immigration officials. “Only after health officials clear passengers after thermal screening are they allowed to proceed to immigration,” said Kaushik Bhattacharjee, Director of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport (NSCBI) in an interview with indianexpress.com.
The hospital nearest to the airport, the government-run Infectious Diseases and Beliaghata General Hospital (I.D. & B.G. Hospital), has been designated by the state government to be prepared for any coronavirus-affected passengers who may arrive at the airport. The hospital has also provided an ambulance to be on standby 24×7 to transport patients.
In Telangana, the state government has been calling for thermal screening of all including domestic passengers at RGI Airport for coronavirus though the Centre has not conceded to the demand yet. Telangana health minister Eatala Rajender said the state has placed orders for two standing thermal scanners which will be available at the Hyderabad airport soon. This will be in addition to one existing thermal scanner and three hand-held scanners.
Coronavirus outbreak: How to avoid the coughing sound caller tune when you make a call
Also, in addition to the present VRDL-ICMR laboratory in Gandhi hospital, the lab at Osmania General Hospital has also been accorded permission to test samples for COVID-19. In addition, permission has been sought from the Centre for utilising the lab at the Institute of Preventive Medicine (IPM) too, Rajender told reporters. Hoardings and flexies on do’s and dont’s have been erected across Hyderabad. Even as authorities claim that metro trains and public buses are being disinfected everyday, many malls and cinema halls do not have hand sanitisers for public.
An authority from Southern Railway told Indianexpress.com that officials have been working round the clock to avert panic among passengers at the Puratchi Thalaivar Dr. M G Ramachandran Central Railway station and Egmore railway station. “Within the organisation, we have instructed our employees to wash their hands regularly and cover their noses and mouths with a tissue while sneezing before disposing it off. We have also urged the staff to seek medical care in case of fever, cough or cold,” B Guganesan, Chief PRO, Southern Railway said.
Additionally, the Southern Railway has displayed posters which have been issued by the Railways and Health ministries across stations in the State. “We are also disinfecting coaches, coach handles, toilet door handles, door handles and handrails frequently. The cleaning is done at every maintenance depot. Apart from this, we have on-board cleaning staff who disinfect the coaches frequently during the journey,” he said.
Officials from the Southern Railway have also been distributing pamphlets to general passengers to spread awareness regarding hand hygiene and cough etiquette. Guganesan added all the railway staff have been provided with masks and trained in personal hygiene. In the hill-shrine of Tirupati, officials from the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) Board have issued an advisory to devotees, instructing them to reschedule their visit to the temple if they are suffering from a cough, cold or fever.
With inputs from Jimmy Leivon in Imphal