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Fighting Covid-19 in small-town India

How home-stay owners in Himachal Pradesh, a cautious mother in Assam, a photojournalist in Jabalpur are dealing with the pandemic

People gather in their society in Jabalpur at 5pm during the Janata curfew
People gather in their society in Jabalpur at 5pm during the Janata curfew ( Photo: Ravindra Vishwakarma)

The day-long Janata curfew on 22 March, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi three weeks after cases of coronavirus started emerging in the country, showed that an overwhelming number of Indians follow his instructions. For most of the day, Delhi’s streets were deserted enough for pigeons to reclaim them, and people in otherwise crowded cities were perplexed by a strange sound (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, many wishing the virus away with song and dance—though the stated intention was to thank critical service providers. 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.

Yet, certain regions remained on the margins. “The North-East always feels somehow marginalized. But we are educated. Nagaland you don’t hear so much about and Manipur also is isolated, unless something big happens the media does not cover it," says Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, a home chef and food critic in Guwahati, Assam.

People in their balcony during the Janata curfew in Jabalpur
People in their balcony during the Janata curfew in Jabalpur ( Photo: Ravindra Vishwakarma)

As many across the world controversially term the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus", people from states such as Nagaland and Manipur have borne the brunt of discrimination—late night on 22 March, Manipuri political activist Angellica Aribam tweeted screenshots of the graphic slurs hurled at her on the social networking site. She has filed an FIR with the Delhi police.

But it is in such areas that people are acting fast, thinking on their feet. While the Capital went into lockdown on 23 March, after close to 25 cases had been reported in the city, at least three states in the North-East—Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim—with no Covid-19 positive patients had already prohibited entry to domestic tourists a week earlier, on 16 March.

So too with Leh in Ladakh. Today, the otherwise bustling market is empty but for dogs in peaceful slumber. On 8 March, as the first two cases of Covid-19 were reported in the hill region, the administration shut all schools up to the higher secondary level across Leh.

Tsewang Nurboo’s daughters clap for sanitation and healthcare workers on their terrace in Leh
Tsewang Nurboo’s daughters clap for sanitation and healthcare workers on their terrace in Leh (Photo: Tsewang Nurboo)

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 joyfully ran up to the terrace at 5pm on 22 March to clap and cheer on learning that it was to “show appreciation for medical staff and sanitation workers".

In some states, people also stepped up. With a mix of precaution and proactiveness, they have taken charge of their families and communities to contain the outbreak.

The sleepy Tirthan valley of Himachal Pradesh saw locals come together as early as 10 March to look at how they could prevent the virus from entering the region.

“Around 10 March, we realized 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, ecotourism planner, IDIPT (infrastructure development investment program for tourism), 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 home-stays. This was also attended by 30-40 home-stay owners and we decided to shut down the home-stays in the valley to tourists. We gave those who were already here around two-three days to leave."

Shortly after, Jibhi valley, Spiti, Kinnaur and Manali followed suit. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which prevents gatherings of more than four people, had already been imposed in Kangra valley.

In Assam, Nath has been proactive, even though no cases have yet been reported in the state. “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 sanitizer 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 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 she go to the doctor and get a certificate. These are senior people asking her to step out. If she leaves, she will expose herself and others."

An empty street during the shutdown in Jabalpur
An empty street during the shutdown in Jabalpur ( Photo: Ravindra Vishwakarma)

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, he says, was also about people looking at one another, even if it was only from their own homes. This matters, especially in smaller communities.

Some, however, had to be on duty during the Janata curfew. Ravindra Vishwakarma, a photojournalist from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, where six cases had been reported at the time of publishing, was out on the streets and at the railway station to document the shutdown.

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

In Chennai, Mujtaba Rizvi, 30, says he is dealing with the impact of a second shutdown. In October, he had to leave his home, Kashmir, where he ran a café, restaurant and art foundation, since most businesses could not function. “I had to move last October because of the (Article) 370-related lockdown. I am 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 if banging plates and pans is enough. What is really being done to equip front-line healthcare workers to take on the burden this pandemic 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 the country goes into lockdown, Rizvi, like many others who are away from home, worries he will not be able to go home to his parents should the need arise. He is also worried about what the future holds for him professionally.

The lockdown is bound to impact businesses. But Sood, who runs a home-stay, says Tirthan is prepared. People have not “put all their eggs in one basket", he claims—they continue farming as an additional means of livelihood and self-sustenance. Still, he worries about the financial strain even as he expresses joy at being able to see many species of birds that had otherwise been forced out by house crows, owing to the trash generation during tourist season.

He perhaps sums up the palpable uncertainty best. “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 memes. But soon the consequences will start to show. The poor in the cities are already experiencing them."

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