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Empty beaches, postponed weddings, people work from home: India grapples with COVID-19

A flash mob in Thiruvananthapuram perform as part of a community awareness programme on coronavirus

A flash mob in Thiruvananthapuram perform as part of a community awareness programme on coronavirus   | Photo Credit: S. GOPAKUMAR

The pandemic has hurt India but it can’t keep it down

When wedding season begins in Delhi, starting in November and lasting till April, it’s brisk business for Simran Bedi. The enterprising beautician always has a gaggle of excited aunts, cousins, grand-aunts and brides lining up at her tiny single-storied pink salon, ready to be rouged up. This year though, her 10-year-old business has taken a beating.

The big fat Indian wedding has been hit by COVID-19, and it has dragged salons down with it. For Simran, the name of the virus has become a verb. “I have been coronaad,” she says. From making ₹6,000-10,000 a day in wedding season, Bedi’s earnings have dipped to ₹2,000.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal shut down clubs, swimming pools, gyms and malls last week, but left out weddings from his list of proscriptions, leaving it to people’s good sense to not congregate. And they seem to be listening. Not just weddings but many social activities are skidding to a halt as people themselves decide to practise ‘social distancing’, that new health mantra.

Business is bad

Social distancing might be the way to fight the virus, but it also means that businesses, big and small, are feeling the coronavirus heat. The airline industry is the worst off, with losses crossing $500 million. Without government aid, carriers say they may shut shop by May.

Kerala’s hospitality industry is also badly struck. With business conferences, retreats and B2B meetings cancelled, room occupancy is as low as 20%. “It’s come down to one or two rooms. Our operational costs are not being met,” says Sooraj Ramakrishnan, Senior Sales Manager at Zuri Kumarakom, a five-star resort. Many hotel chains are talking of 15-30% pay cuts for upper management and unpaid leave for junior staff.

Bengaluru’s restaurants have seen a staggering 70% decline in footfall — be it fine dining or the small darshinis. “The impact is going to be long-lasting and deep,” says Manu Chandra, the proprietor of several restaurants and Bengaluru Chapter Head, National Restaurant Association of India. “Hospitality depends on daily transactions to break even. Human resources and rentals are our highest costs. If this crisis doesn’t abate soon, we could be looking at closures and layoffs.”

Members of an NGO distribute free face masks to commuters in Ahmedabad

Members of an NGO distribute free face masks to commuters in Ahmedabad   | Photo Credit: Vijay Soneji

But it’s those on the lowest rungs who might suffer the most. Birender Yadav is a spot boy from Mumbai’s Juhu Koliwada, a daily wage earner whose earnings have stopped because Bollywood has stopped shootings. “Ghar par hain. Shooting ruk jaane se ghar ka kiraya to nahin ruk jaata. Gareeb log kya khayenge, bachche kaise paalenge? (I am stuck at home. The shooting is stalled but we still have to pay rent. How will the poor eat, feed kids?)” he says. Yadav was working on Hungama 2. He makes ₹1,500-1,800 a day for a 15-16 hour shift. He hopes the Federation of Western India Cine Employees (FWICE) will do something to help members.

With commutes dropping sharply, thousands of cab drivers just can’t make ends meets. And, as of Thursday, aggregator companies did not have any compensation plan in place. In other sectors too, companies are laying off people or sending them on unpaid leave. Without a vaccine in sight yet, things are beginning to look grim.

All shut down

Shows, movies, malls, gyms, pools, zoos, amusement parks — they are all closed. Says Mumbai-based comedian Kajol Srinivasan, “All corporate gigs have been cancelled — the OML circuit comedy fest, the Pune Comedy Festival 4.0, all cancelled. And most producers have shut open mics until March 31.” Srinivasan has turned to designing to make money. How is she coping? “I am trying to write,” she says, “but mostly making gloomy calls to other comedians. And oh, I made orange marmalade, I am so bored.”

People have begun self-isolating. They have begun to call off addas, birthdays, gym and yoga classes. “I decided to stay away from yoga class today as it was pranayama day, which involves inhaling and exhaling air,” says Nirupa, who lives in a gated community in ATS Society in Delhi’s Indirapuram. She has just received a residents WhatsApp alert that the society gym and club have also closed. Her housing society plans to get infra-red thermometers to screen visitors.

Many complexes in Chennai and Bengaluru have already acquired these. Even though its efficacy is disputed, it’s being wielded faithfully everywhere — outside gyms, gated communities, office buildings, even Parliament.

In the heart of New Delhi is the sprawling Lodhi Gardens, a 15th-century legacy of the Lodhi dynasty, which doubles up as the capital’s green lung. Young couples can always be found here, romancing under the trees, oblivious to the walkers and runners around them. But Corona has frightened them away, and only a few couples can be seen now.

The famous middle-class mantra of shaping up for summer has also been put on hold. But Chirag Khurana of Anytime Fitness club, with its 45 centres around Delhi, has not given up. His 32,000 members have paid steep annual fees ranging from ₹28,000 to ₹50,000, and he has plans to e-mail them fitness tips, balanced diets and more. “We are not even looking at how the closure will impact business right now. Who knows, we may open by end-March,” he says with optimism, adding, “After this phase is over, more people might become health conscious.”

A woman is checked for temperature at Guwahati railway station

A woman is checked for temperature at Guwahati railway station   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Cities are shutting down one after another. Even Mumbai, nonchalant till last weekend, got cautious. As the number of patients reached 48 in Maharashtra on Thursday, its jam-packed trains, metros and stations are no longer so full. Marine Drive is finally deserted, and restaurants have begun to down shutters.

Although Chennai’s malls, cinemas and shopping districts are shut, it is otherwise looking normal. Bengaluru seems more circumspect, with people staying off the streets. The railway station in Kerala’s capital wears a deserted look. In Kochi, we saw a deliveryman waiting outside the gate, hands resting on the bars. The lady of the house came out, took the package, then started wiping the gate down to sanitise it. This scene has quickly become a part of daily life.

In Pune, a retired Army officer says they have “stocked medicines, hygiene supplies, a month’s dry rations and drawn cash to prepare for coronavirus.” With 50-plus members and two cancer patients in his family, “we are proactively social distancing,” he says. “No visits except the most essential and we have stopped the domestic help too.” Even the protesting women of Shaheen Bagh have decided to limit their numbers at the protest site and take all the precautions prescribed by the Ministry of Health.

Panic stations

The bigger crisis right now seems to be panic. People have begun to stockpile: flour, rice, lentils, milk and medicines. Many stores are seeing empty shelves as people prepare to stay indoors. BigBasket’s website says deliveries will be delayed as there’s “an unprecedented increase in demand”. Grofers says “average ticket sizes are way higher than normal,” and warns customers that “excessive buying or multiple orders to bypass inventory limit can lead to order cancellation.”

Hand sanitisers and masks are in great demand even though medical advisers have repeatedly said that soap and water is a better cleanser. Both have vanished from shelves, despite the government requesting people not to hoard. A ₹100 pack of hand wipes sells for ₹190 in Mumbai while in Kochi, masks were ₹18 apiece. In Tamil Nadu, the Health Ministry issued notices to shops warning them against selling masks, sanitisers and thermometers at higher prices.

Stay home

“Mass work from home — this is uncharted territory,” says Amit Hardi, CEO of Bengaluru-based gaming firm Nukebox Studios. He began working from home this week, converting his guest bedroom into a home office. His colleagues are doing the same. “The dynamics will evolve over time, but we have no choice but to make this work for now,” he says.

Many offices along Chennai’s IT Expressway have declared work-from-home, with some firms insisting their employees sit in front of videocams as proof of working!

A passenger wearing a mask takes a nap as he waits for his train at the Guwahati railway station

A passenger wearing a mask takes a nap as he waits for his train at the Guwahati railway station   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

This might have an unexpected fallout. As more people stay home, infrastructure in these suburbs is likely to be hit hard. Residential complexes are worrying about how many more water tankers they have to order and how much oftener the sewage trucks have to come by.

With schools and colleges shut, people are trying to “reinvent family time”. Ranju B. in Bengaluru has ordered home several board games; the old dusty carrom board has been brought out, while some families say they are gardening together. People gather in fours and fives for yoga or dance and music lessons, while parents struggle to keep young kids engaged. Streaming services are in high demand, as are online schooling resources, virtual museums and operas, and free online Ivy League courses. Is the virus going to lead to deeper bonds being forged between family members?

Gods must be careful

The pandemic is changing how people pray. In Mumbai, the hugely popular Siddhivinayak and Mumbadevi temples have shut their doors. March is festival season in Kerala but temples, including Sabarimala, have cancelled cultural programmes and feasts, holding only rituals. Even the hugely popular Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati has been shut down, but Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has allowed Ram Navami celebrations in Ayodhya to go ahead.

Mosques are asking the faithful to pray from home; while some worshippers are coming to prayer in masks. It is Lent, but many Kerala parishes have cancelled daily prayers and religious heads are asking devotees to pray from home. Some churches have cancelled confessions, holy communion, and blessings by hand.

“Last Sunday, our priest forbade touching or kissing statues and the cross,” says Nitin Antony Francis, an entrepreneur in Kochi. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has sent out a list of dos and don’ts, which includes asking people to make the sign of peace with folded hands, to not kiss the cross on Good Friday, and for priests to dip their hands in sanitiser before holy communion.

Funny side up

As virus fears get stronger, governments are getting tougher against people who break rules. In Pune, a case was registered against the father of a young woman who encouraged his daughter to escape quarantine. In Kerala, when Bigg Boss contestant Rajith Kumar’s fans thronged Kochi airport on March 15 to welcome him, the police filed cases against 79 of them, including against Kumar.

But every depressing story has a silver lining. And nothing breaks the ice like the irrepressible Rakhi Sawant’s Twitter video imploring all the gods she knows to halt the virus in its tracks. Corona memes and COVID-19 jokes are at their best. Sex isn’t being ignored either, as people circulate images of complicated positions where face-to-face contact can be avoided during the act, and social media asks people to stockpile copies of the Kamasutra.

As India prepares to hunker down and wait for the virus to reach its expiry date, perhaps people might turn to books, writing and old-fashioned friendships? Life as we know it might have come to a halt but it’s certainly not at an end. Who knows, this sense of an ending might also herald a year of magical thinking.

(With inputs from bureaus.)

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Printable version | Mar 28, 2020 6:37:18 PM |

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