In this village by the sea in which I have been locked down since the lockdown began, the first thing we do every morning is check if there have been any cases of the Chinese virus. In fearful voices, we telephone those we know and make sure everyone is in good health. We have reason to be fearful. The nearest hospital is 20 km away and not equipped to deal with a virus that attacks the lungs so brutally that oxygen machines and ventilators become necessary. It is not a hospital in which doctors and nurses are armed with essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) either. Finding a hospital geared to deal with COVID-19 would mean driving two hours to Mumbai. Luckily, so far, there has not been a single case reported from anywhere in the district.
This village, like others along this stretch of the Konkan coast, used to have an economy based on fishing and marginal farming. But, in recent years, local people have come to rely on the more lucrative business of tourism. Every other house has become a hotel, a guesthouse or a home that offers ‘comfortable a/c rooms’ to the hordes of middle-class tourists who flock here from Mumbai on weekends and holidays.
Tourism has died since the lockdown because ferry services by sea have been stopped and travel by road severely restricted. The little hotels and seaside restaurants are empty. I begin my daily routine with a walk on the beach and social distancing is easy. I meet almost nobody on this morning excursion. But, fears of the virus hang over us like a contaminated pall. Now that there is talk that the lockdown will be extended beyond next Tuesday new fears have begun to spread. Issues of livelihood have become almost more important than issues of life and death.
Local people fear that they will not be able to survive much longer if all economic activity remains in a state of total suspension. There are also fears that if road travel becomes more difficult, the village grocery shop could soon run out of supplies. There is a consensus that if the lockdown continues then it should be made less severe so that small shops and businesses can start opening their doors again. Will this happen? Nobody is foolish enough to believe that life can go back to the way it was immediately, but they hope that it will in some measure.
Newspapers stopped coming long ago. So, after I have finished reading this one on my cellphone, I read others online. It is part of my routine to regularly cruise the news channels in order to discover what is happening in the rest of the locked-down world. Sadly, most of the channels seem to spend their time discussing the virus in studios instead of reporting what is happening on the ground. It is in pictures posted on social media that I saw those long, heartbreaking food queues in Dharavi. This is a slum in whose mean streets I have wandered often to report on the little factories and warehouses that in normal times buzz with frenzied activity day and night.
Those who do not own or work in these small businesses are just as entrepreneurial. A young man I know used to show up every morning on Marine Drive with steel containers filled with ‘idlis’ and ‘sambhar’ that his widowed mother woke at dawn to make. He made a good living till pavement shops were banned on Mumbai’s most iconic promenade. He was forced to return to his village in Tamil Nadu, but thousands of enterprising people like him continue to live in Mumbai’s many slums. They would be too proud to queue up for free food if some way was found for them to continue running their small businesses. But, Mumbai is the epicentre of the virus in Maharashtra and this state continues to report more cases than any other, so lifting the lockdown will not be easy.
This newspaper has done better than our competitors to draw attention to the economic hardship that ordinary Indians face since the lockdown. Stories of farmers unable to reach markets to sell their freshly harvested grain are as heartbreaking as the stories from Mumbai’s slums. Vegetables and fruit are being allowed to rot in the fields because there is nothing else that can be done with them. And, from a man who runs a flower farm not far from this village, I hear that buds are being destroyed before they flower because flower markets in Mumbai have been closed completely.
Big businesses are hurting as badly as small ones. A friend who works in the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai says it has been completely empty ever since the lockdown began. This is true of every other hotel in the city, and true of airlines who cannot function because of the ban on air travel. Tales of despair filter daily into the village in which I am locked down and most of them are about economic despair and not health problems. It is hard to say what should be done but what is becoming clearer by the day is that some way will need to be found soon to ease the lockdown or the Indian economy, which was already in poor health, could become the biggest victim of this Chinese virus.
This article first appeared in the print edition of April 12, 2020, under the name ‘Fifth column: Destitution or disease?’
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