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Covid-19 in my city: How Indians in small towns are fighting the virus

As the janata curfew draws to a close, Lounge speaks to proactive homestay owners in Himachal Pradesh, a cautious mother in Assam, a photojournalist in Jabalpur among others to see how people are dealing with the pandemic

Members of a society in Jabalpur congregate to bang pots and pans at 5pm on 22 March/.
Members of a society in Jabalpur congregate to bang pots and pans at 5pm on 22 March/. (Ravindra Vishwakarma)

The day-long janata (citizens’) curfew on 22 March, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi three weeks after cases of coronavirus started to emerge in the country, revealed that an overwhelming number of Indians follow his instructions closely. For most of the day in Delhi, the streets were deserted enough for pigeons to reclaim them and people in otherwise crowded cities were perplexed by a strange sound coming from the sky (it was birdsong).

At 5pm, the scenario changed. Splashed across television and social media were visuals of people congregating in hundreds on the streets, bursting crackers, taking out processions, wishing the virus away with song and dance. In Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, the district magistrate himself led a group of people on the streets, thronged with police personnel and locals. It looked like a social distancing nightmare.

Still, even as the janata curfew and the spread of the virus itself have consumed the national consciousness, certain regions have as yet remained on the margins. “The Northeast always feels somehow marginalised. But we are educated. Nagaland you don’t hear so much about and Manipur also is isolated. Unless something big happens, the media do not cover it," says Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, a home chef and food critic in Guwahati, Assam.

Assam: acting fast

As many across the world call the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus", people from states such as Nagaland and Manipur have borne the brunt of the discrimination in the face of Covid-19 in the country. Late night on 22 March, Manipuri political activist Angellica Aribam tweeted screenshots of the graphic slurs hurled at her. She has filed an FIR with the Delhi police.

In Assam, Nath has personally been proactive in dealing with the virus, even though there have been no reported cases in the state yet. “My daughter returned from Thailand this weekend, where she studies, since everything had been shut down there at a day’s notice. When we went to collect her from the airport, I carried a sanitiser spray with me. We sprayed it in the car, on her and her luggage."

Nath and her family are now in self-quarantine at home for the next two weeks. She says her daughter followed the medical protocol at the airport to the letter, signed declarations, and underwent thermal screening.

“The health department told her to stay put indoors and to call them in case she showed any symptoms. I informed my society secretary about her return because I felt it was important that they knew," says Nath. “They immediately asked if she can go to a doctor and get a certificate. These are senior people asking her to step out. If she leaves home, she will expose herself and others."

Homestays in Himachal: Helping each other

Over two thousand kilometres away is the sleepy Tirthan Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where locals set the trend for the rest of the state, when they came together as early as 10 March to look at how they could prevent the virus from entering the region.

“Around 10 March we realised it was spreading, and it was mostly people from outside bringing it in. Here, since there were a lot of foreigners and domestic tourists booked, it would have become very difficult for us to find out everyone’s travel history," says Ankit Sood, 46, ecotourism planner, IDIPT, HP Tourism.

“We have a proactive association (Tirthan Conservation and Tourism Development Association) here, which gathers quickly. So we had an emergency meeting in one of the homestays. This was attended by 30-40 homestay owners, and we decided to shut down the homestays in the valley to tourists. We gave those who were already here around 2-3 days to leave." Shortly after, Jibhi valley, Spiti, Kinnaur and Manali followed suit. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prevents gathering of more than five people, had already been imposed in the Kangra valley.

The janata curfew was particularly successful in Tirthan, Sood notes. “People got their devta ghantis and mridang. They were playing their puja instruments, rather than just banging thaalis." The moment was also about people seeing their neighbours from their homes, which matters a lot, especially in smaller communities.

As business takes a hit this season due to the shutdown, Sood says people have not “put all their eggs in one basket". They continue to have agriculture as an alternative means of livelihood and self-sustenance. Still, he worries about the financial strain, while expressing joy at being able to see many species of birds that had otherwise been obliterated by house crows, owing to the trash generation during tourist season.

Leh: Back to their roots

In another otherwise bustling mountain town of Leh in Ladakh, the market is empty but for dogs in a peaceful slumber. Leh, too, was early to shut down—the administration decided to close all the schools up to higher secondary level across the district on 8 March as the first two cases of Covid-19 were reported.

Tsewang Nurboo, headmaster of Middle School, Leh, near Khaltse, says he has given the students homework online. “But many people have left Leh city, including students, and gone back to their villages. Several of these villages are remote with no internet access, so they are focusing on going back to their traditional roots—agriculture, working in the fields, and learning about their culture," he says.

Nurboo, too, has moved back to Choglamsar, 8km from the main city of Leh, to live with his family. His young daughters were overjoyed at 5pm on 22 March, as they ran up to the terrace to clap and cheer on learning that it was to “show appreciation for medical staff and sanitation workers".

Jabalpur: united against the virus

Observing the janata curfew, however, was not as simple for those who needed to be deployed on duty. Ravindra Vishwakarma, a photojournalist from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, where four cases were reported a few days ago, was out on the streets and at the railway station with his camera to document the shutdown.

“I had permission to do my job, and took all precautions as advised—I wore a mask, carried sanitiser. But I noticed that the curfew was a success here, regardless of political ideology," says Vishwakarma, who maintains that the instability in the political climate of the state, after the fall of the Kamal Nath government a week ago, has not affected the fight against Covid-19.

“Collector 10-12 gaadiyan lagwa ke announce karwa rahe hain ki abhi log ghar se na nikle, mask ka istemaal karein. bohot zaroorat ho tab hi nikle. Sab bataya gaya hai (the collector has sent out 10-12 cars on the streets, announcing the various precautions people should take during this time)," he says. “All governments have come together to fight the virus."

From Kashmir to Chennai: A second lockdown

Down south, in Chennai, Mujtaba Rizvi, 30, is dealing with the impact of a second shut down. He had to leave his hometown of Kashmir in October last year, where he ran a cafe, restaurant and art foundation, after the revocation of Article 370, since most businesses could not function. “I had to move last October because of the (Article) 370-related lockdown. I’m going through my own migration and now there is a second lockdown. It’s quite depressing to be alone in a different city in lockdown again," says Rizvi.

He wonders, though, if banging plates and pans is enough. What is being done to equip frontline healthcare workers to take on the burden this epidemic will impose on the system? “My dad is a doctor, he works half a day at the clinic. They gave him a mask last week. My friends are doctors—one of them is the registrar at the emergency ward at SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. They don’t have what they need," says Rizvi.

As states and regions shut down their borders and go into near-complete lockdown, Rizvi, like many others who are away from home, worries he will not be able to go to his parents should the need arise. The uncertainty is palpable.

Sood, from Tirthan, sums up the uncertainty. "Right now everyone is in the heat of things. But as time passes and as people go on with no revenue, the real test will come. Right now, there is josh and the memes. But soon the consequences will start to show. The poor in the cities are already experiencing them."

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