India in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic: an image full of contradictions


In its fight against the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, India is facing its greatest social and economic challenge since independence in 1947. Persisting political and social contradictions have become more visible than ever before. Media reports are shifting the focus away from areas that really matter for the preservation of a democratic social fabric. Yet the current situation also leaves a ray of hope. 

Indien Corona

“The lockdown here in India is only for those who can afford it” says Linda Chhakchhuak, a journalist from Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. “The most marginalised are suffering not from coronavirus, but from the impacts of the lockdown: no job, no money, no food, no shelter and no health facilities. The rich and salaried are warmly ensconced at home with enough food on home delivery”.

Since lockdown began, Linda Chhakchhuak has been working round the clock. She is reporting on the desperate situation of the people, and about their fears. She is also trying to support people from the Northeast of India who have been stuck in other parts of the country since the beginning of the lockdown: migrant workers who were taken by surprise by the short-notice announcement, students who have been thrown out of their accommodation without notice. None of them has much income or savings and because of this, some of them also have nowhere to live. But beyond this, and often more than the equally affected local population, they are often discriminated against because they are from the Northeast. 

Already referred to disparagingly as “Chin” (Chinese) because of their Southeast Asian appearance, they are now publicly being abused as “Corona”. Very often, they have no access to local supply structures. Since the nationwide call to stay at home was announced, there is just one thing that these people wish for: to go back home. And this is precisely what is not possible, since local means of transportation have been suspended for weeks. Many people have therefore departed on foot, on a long march back to their home states and villages. Thousands of them lined the streets of large parts of Northern India, while their images filled the headlines of the world.

Linda Chhakchhuak is in touch with groups and individuals who are from the northeastern states. Migrant workers who are stuck in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Trichy and other industrial centers of the Indian mainland. From Bangalore, according to Google, that would be a distance of more than 3000 km and a walking time of around 550 hours - and only then by taking a direct shortcut through the neighbouring country of Banlgadesh. 

The world’s biggest house arrest?

After a voluntary “dry run” on a Sunday afternoon in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the 24th of March announced what could be the most extensive house arrest of the global coronavirus pandemic: 1.3 billion people were told to remain at home for the next 21 days. With just five hours' notice, domestic borders were closed and international flights cancelled. The usually overcrowded streets of India’s cities with millions of inhabitants were suddenly empty. People were allowed to leave their homes only to get essential supplies. The order was enforced by an ad hoc Corona Police Unit, equipped with motorbikes – and bamboo sticks. The wearing of masks was made mandatory and spitting a public offence. 

PM Modi addressed the nation in his well-staged persona, as always: calm, confident, empathetic, in a particularly elegant choice of Hindi, seasoned with a pinch of Hindu Vedic tradition. In the three addresses he has so far made to the nation, he called out to the people to be reasonable, patient and show unity. The regulations published following his brief speeches are complex and many pages long, and in English language. And long were also the queues that built up a little later at many of the markets in the country. Those people who can afford it were lining up to purchase food, vegetables and dairy products. They moved ahead, stepping in circles drawn on the streets in front of market stalls, to keep a safe distance apart, reminiscent of a game of human Ludo.

Although the majority of the population in India can neither speak nor understand Hindi or English, the well-staged idea of PM Modi as the great saviour of the nation seemed successful: a certain kind of order was introduced in most parts of the Subcontinent, which otherwise remains a form of structured chaos. So far, the enforced regulations also seem to have been successful; the spread of the virus, which was predicted to spike fast, has progressed slowly to date. On the 6th of May, around six weeks after the beginning of lockdown, 52,000 infection cases were statistically recorded. That is roughly 0.004 % of India’s population. 

And with the third phase of the lockdown announced on the 4th of May, steps for its gradual withdrawal are being taken in parallel. Some experts commend the Indian government on its approach and believe that the country may actually be able to avoid the peak of infection cases that other countries have faced. Others, however, fear rather bleaker developments. 

Infection rates as entertainment 

In the fight against the virus, the metropolitan cities of Delhi (around 16 million inhabitants) and Mumbai (around 28 million inhabitants) are pushing the Indian government to its administrative limits. Statistics show that the virus is spreading faster there. The establishment of so-called containment zones, ensuring food supplies, expanding health care facilities, training health workers and procuring the required amount of PPE – the challenges are enormous. 

To control the pandemic, the government has focused from the beginning on following up on infection chains, or contact tracing, predominantly people returning from abroad. Through media reporting, the public watched the scenario unfold like in a TV series. It gets to know first-hand and in real time, how cavalierly precisely these people have handled the danger of infection. Viewers learn about personal travels, who has invited people to a large birthday or dinner party, been to a wedding or visited one temple or another – which had not yet been closed. The third lock down extension was even heralded Bollywood Style: by military helicopters showering rose petals on Covid 19 hospitals. 

The focus now is on isolating potential human infection hotspots. For this, the capital Delhi has been declared a hotspot overall and there currently are around 90 containment zones within the city. And although it may seem impossible to carry out active testing in one of the most highly populated countries of the world, it is questionable whether the strategy of isolation will be successful in the long run, precisely because of the density of India’s population.  

A long list of problems 

In week six after the great house arrest began, the economic consequences India will have to tackle in the years to come are more and more visible: some 90 million seasonal migrant workers are out of a job, state assistance funding has been used up or is stretched to its limits. Donations in millions from the private sector and other donors seem nowhere near enough. And wherever there is still money available, distribution policies are not transparent and application channels inaccessible to many of those who need supplies. Labour-intensive sectors, such as textiles, have reported that they cannot afford to pay wages for the months of April and May 2020. The manufacturing and export sectors are considering closing down small production units across the country. The government has brought in a ban on salary reductions and redundancies, but they feel unable to comply with this. On top of an unemployment rate that is growing by the day, around 650 million people are now threatened by food insecurity. This is partly because of delays in harvesting crops due to the strict lockdown, but also the absence of vital imports, for instance of rice, from other countries in the region. The list of problems to tackle seems endless. 

Yoga for all and the end of political empathy

Because of lockdown, there are only very few well-researched reports about how the highly diverse population are or might be coping with the situation. This is especially true for the hardest hit sections of India’s society. What is visible are plenty of campaigns in which minorities, foreigners and, most of all, the Muslim population of the country are blamed for spreading the virus throughout the country. Inequalities, created through conservative government policies long before the corona crisis began, are growing deeper. Muslim citizens are blatantly accused of leading a “corona Jihad” against public safety. Reports about the social exclusion of people infected by the virus, attacks on medical staff and on many migrant workers who have finally made it back to their villages are becoming increasingly frequent. The fear of social stigmatisation because of a possible virus infection in the Indian caste system seems greater than the fear of being infected itself. 

Journalists and activists critical of the government continue to be arrested under the cover of public health interests. And issues important for a democratic debate, such as the introduction of the Citizen Amendment Bill, have disappeared, together with the group of demonstrators against the act who have been cleared from the streets of Delhi. And suspicions are growing that conservative right-wing political players might be skilfully using the public health crisis to wipe away any political thinking about the descent of the pluralistic and democratic Indian society. 

While the government has published its own YouTube yoga channel featuring a Modi Avatar to keep the physical body of the nation in motion, within days of PM Modi announcing the launch of a dedicated monitoring app to document the actual movements of the people, 90 million people have already installed this app on their mobile phones. It is not really clear what else the collected data is being used for but the app might be made mandatory for everyone who wants to leave their house when the lockdown is over. 

Debates in spaces without borders

After an initial pause for orientation, the urban Indian civil society is meeting up again in virtual spaces. As actual geographic distances are no longer a hindrance to getting together, the virtual spread of the already well-institutionalised Indian conference culture is endless. Every day seems to bring more streams of workshops, webinars, readings. Whether this plethora of virtual debates will bring about coherent results or even new approaches remains to be seen. So far, the focus on largely traditional subject areas looks mostly like an attempt to create at least some familiar grounds in an otherwise entirely unknown situation. 

The view beyond the (Western) horizon 

A small number of civil-society actors are using the lockdown period as an opportunity to think beyond approaches that are based on Western theorizing and schools of thought. They are making use of the spaces that seem to be opening up for debates about new knowledges and ecologically sustainable political strategies. They are talking about how to preserve the current water quality of the Ganges – which seems to have cleansed itself of toxic pollutants after the industrial production on the river banks ceased. They are calling for measures to maintain the dramatically improved air quality, through protection measures for forests and biodiversity reservoirs. And they are debating stories of communities in which traditional modes of livelihood management are (re)emerging as ecologically and economically sustainable structures.

For the states of the Northeast of India in particular, it seems to be turning out to be an advantage that they had not until recently been a focus of the attention of the development and infrastructure plans of the government. Also due to the regions long history of conflict the people are familiar with situations of curfew and scarcity. On community and state levels, they very early on took on their own protection measure and economic survival strategies. According to statistics, there currently are only 64 cases of coronavirus in the whole north-eastern region.

“The real question is, what we are all so afraid of?”, asks Linda Chhakchhuak. “Is it the fear of being infected by the virus, or are we afraid of having to give up some of our wealth, change our consumption patterns or share our living spaces with other people and, above all, with nature? If, at the end of the crisis, the majority of the population of this country is left to die through starvation and illness, and if we don’t use this opportunity to re-think in ecologic and socially just ways, everything was meaningless. The question that we must ask ourselves is: what kind of India do we want to step into whenever we are able to step back out after this lockdown?”