Out-of-work labourers are returning to their villages after the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown on March 25 (Photo: Pramod Thakur/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

Billions of tiny tragedies, but India will persevere

India faces more challenges battling Covid-19 than any other country in the world. New Zealander Paula Simpson reports from her corner of the global lockdown.

I’ve been living in India for more than three years now, and still I haven’t even begun to understand its rich, complex history and culture. This article is only from my small point of view. My husband and I live in Karnataka, a wealthy state, and we live in a gated society with 1,000 other people (I grew up in Balclutha, population 3,000, just for reference). I can only tell my story.

India faces huge challenges, but I believe the government has been doing everything right so far. Certainly, far better than some other governments that have decided to play The Hunger Games with their inhabitants.

India has a massive, incredibly diverse population

There’s 1.3 billion of us here in India. Added to the huge challenge of trying to manage 1.3 billion people is the diversity of languages – while many people speak English and Hindi, each state has its own language, and there are multiple dialects within that. If you’re sending out a message to all your citizens, how do you do so to make sure everyone hears the correct information? And how do you disseminate it when not everyone can read or has television?

The Indian government did the best thing it could, in the best way it could. Weeks ago, it implemented a message that played every time you called someone. It was a short message telling the listener about Covid-19 in a local language. This was incredibly effective, personalised for the region, and was implemented long before Covid-19 arrived in India.

Poverty is a big problem

In 2012, India said 22% of its citizens lived in poverty – about 286 million people. It’s estimated 80% of India’s workforce are daily wage earners, living hand-to-mouth. On March 25, the government gave us four hours’ notice for a 21-day lockdown. What’s going to happen to them now? How do these families feed themselves when there’s no work? And then, when there are no toilets, no running water or soap in your home, how do you wash your hands and maintain hygiene? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this.

To keep all these people fed, many state governments have developed emergency aid, giving rations of rice, daal (lentils) and other basics to those who need it. Tata (a large, privately owned company) has donated ₹1,500 crore (NZ$330 million) to help pay for medical facilities and relief packages for the poor. The government has started the first of their relief packages, with ₹1.7 lakh crore (NZ$37.4 billion) distributed in payments and food for the poor.

Tight-knit families are a double-edged sword

One of the best things about India is the culture of tight family bonds. Many generations of families live together and look after each other. The problem with this is that Covid-19 seems to barely affect kids. These little carrier pigeons of disease could infect their entire family, risking their grandparents’ lives. Mitigating the risk, the Indian government closed all schools weeks ago, before Covid-19 was a big problem here.

It’s also common for families to leave their native village and work in the city where jobs are more plentiful. When the shutdown was announced and all streams of income extinguished, all the migrant labour had to go home to their extended families. The government closed all trains and buses during the lockdown, so these people can’t get home. This is the problem at present, which the national and local governments are trying to address; hundreds of thousands of people crowded into bus stations with nowhere else to go, or walking hundreds of kilometres to get home.

Every state is different

The national government has also given a lot of decision-making power over to individual states. While this has resulted in some short-term chaos, putting the power back to the local chief minister is the wisest thing to do. For instance, in Karnataka, many of our fruit and vegetables come from a neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu. If we close the border, Bangalore city, where 12 million people (including me) live, won’t have food. Handing power back to the individual states means that the best solution can be found for their situation.

What does this mean for me, a Kiwi in India?

My husband returned back to India from the US on March 15. His temperature was tested at the airport, and then he had daily calls from the health department, checking if he had any symptoms. We had random visits from the health department, his hand was stamped with permanent ink so he could be easily identified if he left the house, and our front door had a giant red warning sign stuck on it.

The self-isolation has now ended, and the lockdown has started. It means a smaller life. I’m incredibly privileged – I run my company from home, I have running water and plenty of food. Our apartment staff are all on paid leave so the residents are taking turns watering the gardens, sweeping and mopping shared areas, cleaning and sanitising the lifts. Every day I walk to the compost, where I throw my green waste.

Coronavirus is not a big event. It’s billions of tiny tragedies, broken hearts, and suffering. And in India, there are 1.3 billion hardships a day. India has lived through much devastation and pain already in its long history; I have no doubt that with jugaad (kind of a number eight wire attitude but foolhardier) and pride, India will recover. The WhatsApp chats I’m in are full of uncertainty and fear, but also lots of people fundraising for the poor in our immediate vicinity.

Kia kaha, whānau. Hum honge kamyaab.
(Stand strong, family. We will be victorious.)

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