Few venture out as lockdown eases in India

Many shops and restaurants are still deserted as India begins emerging from lockdown this week.

Radha Dhongre, an economist, described going out for a coffee with her daughter on Monday in Khan Market in New Delhi, the Indian capital, the day the lockdown was eased as an experiment. Her trip was motivated by curiosity and a desire to see if it was feasible.

Coffee was consumed outside while leaning against the bonnet of a car because the cafe was too small to allow social distancing. It was followed by a trip to the ATM, the purchase of some cosmetics (“Don’t touch the lipsticks or anything” warned the owner) and picking up a takeaway for lunch.

“I’m glad we went but we aren’t doing it again for some time. It was too much for the nerves. We felt quite drained by the tension,” said Dhongre.

It’s a view being echoed over large parts of India as the country emerges from its two-and-a-half month lockdown. Banks, shopping malls, cafes, and restaurants were still mostly deserted, with only a handful of customers. Many Indians prefer the security of the lockdown to the perils of venturing out.

Although almost all the shops in the Community Centre in New Friends Colony were open, it still wore the eerie lockdown look for lack of customers. Sanitisers operated with a foot pedal were positioned outside the humblest store. “No mask, no entry” was pasted on doors. At the largely empty bank, a thermal gun checked temperatures.

“This is the most dangerous time with the lockdown being lifted and cases exploding. I plan to be much more cautious than before,” said Ritesh Thakur who had come out to go to the bank.

At the nearby fruit stall, the scene showed the mixed fate of the face mask. The owner wasn’t wearing one, his wife kept pulling hers down to speak, and their teenage son let his droop below his mouth, or maybe the elastic had gone. This, despite the fact that India is recording almost 10,000 new infections every day.

In New Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, the traffic jams are back. With buses allowing only about a third of the normal passengers in a city with the population density of Mumbai, workers had a miserable time getting home. “I’ve been waiting for three hours,” a man at a bus stop told a TV channel.

Factories are allowed to operate at half capacity but employers can barely find 25% of the workforce they need. Some have fled to their villages and others are too frightened to return to work in virus-hit cities.

In the past week, some people have been spooked by widely exchanged videos and posts depicting the ordeal of families running around hospitals for a bed and of some private hospitals demanding extortionate fees as a pre-condition for admission.

The message accompanying the videos is invariably: “Continue the lockdown. For the government, you are only a number. For your family, you are the whole world.”

“It’s not so much fear of the virus as fear of a loved one not being able to get treatment that’s frightening,” said a woman in the chemist at the community centre. 

Places of worship across the country too saw only a trickle of visitors amid strict social distancing rules.

Not many Delhi residents will be encouraged to resume normal life given the figures coming out. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia (chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is to be tested for Covid-19) said on Tuesday that cases were doubling every fortnight.

He added that this meant the current figure of 30,000 coronavirus cases would soar to well over half a million by 31 July.

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