India – quarantine in indigence and mistrust

Daily workers who find themselves devoid of everything, tiny dwellings where it is difficult to get cloistered, middle classes who rob pharmacies, and mistrust to the word of the authorities … The beginnings of quarantine, announced at 1.3 billion Indians for three weeks are complicated.

The Kotla bazaar in southern New Delhi is usually full of people. Its main street, about four meters wide, is a concentrate of India: a hundred craftsmen, hardware stores, drapers, tobacco sellers or wedding musicians are busy all along. And in the center, onlookers move elbows trying clear a passage between the cows and the scooters. But today, all of that has disappeared. The iron curtains are drawn, the barges at home and only the cows roam, new queens of an almost deserted neighborhood.

Since Wednesday morning and for three weeks, the main part of the 1.3 billion Indians are called to cloister, which represents the biggest confinement of the world, before China, which had imposed it only in 20 provinces. All urban transport, except a few buses, is stopped and vehicles are not allowed to travel without imperative reason; all flights are interrupted, except those evacuating foreigners; trains, which usually carry 22 million passengers a day, no longer run. The borders between states are closed, except for the freight of basic necessities intended to supply the grocery stores and pharmacies which remain open.

Nature benefits from the stopping of transport and industries: the toxic and dark clouds that usually hover over Indian cities are dissipating and New Delhi, the most polluted capital of the world, saw its level of fine particles divided by two in three days, to finally reach breathable levels.

Glued to each other

India - quarantine in indigence and mistrust

India, which has experienced four wars in 73 years of existence, has never experienced such paralysis. But the measures are up to the challenge formulated by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi: “If you do not respect these 21 days, the country will go back at 21 years.” Currently India has 640 active cases of coronavirus for 17 deaths. However, such confinement remains a challenge, in a country that has one of the highest population densities in the world – three times bigger than Chinese one – and where, according to national statistics, 30% of urban residents lived in 2008 in a space of around 6m2 per person, less than what is recommended for a French prisoner.

In working-class neighborhoods, people continue to live outside. The children run in the streets while the parents play carom, a sort of Indian billiard on a tray, a mask on the mouth or sharing the traditional pipe, despite all precautions. It is also not easy to learn to keep your distance, because in India everyone lives on top of each other, and we line up next to each other. To cope, some grocers had to draw circles in front of their stalls, circles spaced a meter apart, to show their customers where they should position themselves to queue.

But this is only the beginning of the crisis and some are already suffering from it, in this country where 90% of workers are employed informally. Thousands of daily workers, without work or subsistence income, leave the cities. On Wednesday, 25 mars, in the center of New Delhi, on the huge deserted avenue of Zakir Hussain, a group of nine workers from a arrested construction site start a 500 km walk to reach their village in Madhya Pradesh, in the center of the country. Their only equipment is a backpack of clothes, sandals on their feet and a few rupees in their pocket. “Everything is closed here, and we have no money,” said Guddi Bhai, a frail woman with a red handkerchief on her mouth to protect herself from the virus. It will take us 8-10 days to get home, but at least we will have shelter and food. ”

On Wednesday evening, the government announced an aid package for the poorest of 20.6 billion euro and the State of Delhi plans to convert 325 schools into food distribution centers. But the precarious do not trust a slow and often corrupt administration. Therefore they prefer to leave this ghost town.

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