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After the Lockdown, Fear and Chaos in India

As panic about the virus escalates, the middle and upper classes are hoarding food, supplies and medicines without a thought for the millions of poor who stand to starve and die.

NEW DELHI - On Tuesday evening, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, ordered a strict nationwide lockdown for the next 21 days to battle the spread of the coronavirus. The busy marketplace in my upscale South Delhi neighborhood is desolate the next morning. Almost all shops are shuttered. The florist who delivered exotic flowers to wealthy homes has abandoned his stock, and the pungent smell of rotting flowers hangs heavy in the air. A pet store has locked up and left the animals inside. Their muffled screams are unbearable.

At the local chemist, two men are at each other’s throats. A large gray-haired man in a lawyer’s robe is shouting expletives through his mask as he towers over a short, scruffy domestic worker. The worker has bought all the acetaminophen in the shop for his employers, and the lawyer is having none of it. The scuffle between the two men seems like an act of transgression — not because it is violent but because it involves freewheeling physical contact.

“Touch is curse,” I was told by a man as he wheeled his stock of sweet potatoes down deserted streets, defying the lockdown in the hope of earning enough to buy food for his family. He offered free sweet potatoes to an old man in a tattered mask sweeping the road. The sweeper, wary of infection, turned his offer down.

As always, the poor are the worst affected. As work began to dry up, thousands of migrant laborers were forced to head back to their villages. Some of them probably brought the virus with them to the villages that have little access to basic infrastructure, including running water.

Trains and buses were discontinued overnight to put a stop to this. Those who could not make it in time and can no longer afford to live in the cities where they work are now attempting to walk for hundreds of miles to get home. Many of them have no money left for food, and the few who do cannot find food anywhere.

Groups of beggars are abandoning their stations at traffic lights and trying to enter gated colonies. Six of them arrived at our neighborhood temple and furiously knocked its doors, asking for food.

In our wealthy neighborhood, even the gods have shut themselves in. But the old order that insulated the wealthier classes from the distress that India’s poor endure is no longer holding. Like the hungry, disease is bound to come knocking sooner or later.

My parents are old and frail, and live by themselves in Calcutta. Whenever there has been an emergency, I have flown down within hours to take care of them. We have the means to mitigate the physical distance between us, but for the first time in our lives, our privilege counts for less. Airports across India are shut. Indian states have scrambled to seal their borders. I can no longer reach my parents. Late last night I found myself wondering who would cremate them if I were to lose them.

The only world that I have known is one in which anxieties are reined in by hope. The privilege of India’s middle class is defined by its investment in India’s growth story, its lust for consumption and its quest for a legacy. But India’s economy has been floundering, and the fall in trade coupled with the lockdown will bring it to its knees. It is unclear how many will still have jobs and businesses by the end of the year.

And it is not just the economy that is struggling. A nationwide lockdown strikes at the very roots of civilization — museums, theaters, cinemas, bookshops, schools, universities, libraries, playgrounds, are all out of bounds. Print-newspaper readership is steeply declining amid fears that papers can be carriers of the disease.

With just one bed for every 2,000 people, Indian hospitals will be unable to accommodate patients by the end of June at the current rate of growth of cases, and as early as the end of April if the infection rate goes up. The huge gulf between the health infrastructure available to India’s poor and to its wealthier classes is closing fast.

As fear escalates, the middle and upper classes trapped in their homes are surrendering to their worst instincts — hoarding food, supplies and medicines without sparing a thought for the millions of poor who stand to starve and die.

People from the northeast of India are being threatened and abused for being racially similar to the Chinese. Houses where people have been quarantined are being marked by authorities, and neighbors are circulating photographs of notices pasted on their doors to encourage ostracizing them.

Perhaps worst of all, doctors are being evicted from their homes for fear they are carriers. In a country that has only one doctor for every 1,404 people, discouraging doctors from doing their jobs is nothing short of self-destruction.

This comes at a time when courts have closed and liberal democracy is threatened by the excessive power the state takes on during a national emergency. Even liberals are demanding that the police be tough on people breaking curfews as panic about the virus spreads. And police patrols are unleashing indiscriminate violence in the name of enforcing the lockdown.

As democratic freedoms recede, superstition is tightening its grip. On Sunday, Indians across the country stood on their balconies banging utensils. This was ostensibly an exercise to thank health workers, but rumors began to circulate that the sound vibrations under the particular alignment of stars at the time will dispel the virus from earth.

Elsewhere, idols of coronavirus are being erected and fed to “satisfy its appetite.” A security guard in our building was apprehended by the police for trying to reach his village for a religious rite performed for the dead. He was convinced that his family would be spared by the contagion if the souls of his ancestors were pacified through the ritual.

Mr. Modi’s lockdown is the largest confinement in human history, with 1.3 billion people abruptly shut in. Neither the system nor the citizenry is prepared for it. No financial package has been declared by the central government to help the poor who live off daily wages. There is no plan in place for what millions of Indian farmers are to do at the coming harvest time.

The enforcement of the lockdown has been extremely ham-handed. On paper, groceries and medicines have been declared essential items that will remain available, but in reality, supply chains have been crippled by overzealous policemen.

Outside city limits, milk and vegetables are being dumped from stranded trucks, while in the cities, groups of angry men assaulted vendors selling vegetables from pushcarts. There are reports of policemen soliciting bribes to allow necessary movement, and breakdown of law and order in parts of the country.

If this continues, the trust in institutions, and in one another, that glues a society together is bound to come unstuck. Never before has the fate of all human beings been so desperately interlinked, and yet we seem to have been ushered into an unrecognizable world where it might just be every person for himself.

This article was originally published on The New York Times.

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