The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
It was March 22, 2020. The Janata curfew had just ended at 7 p.m. I was pursuing social sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. I began my journey back home to Mumbai by car. The roads were empty in the country of billion-plus people; I suspected something unusual and terrifying. One could easily count the number of people on the road.
Empty roads were chilling on the highway. The lights of the toll, all but one, were switched off. It felt like the end of the times; the few people, who were seen, were hushing around covering their faces with masks and applying sanitizers. The government was issuing new orders every 30 minutes, and everything seemed uncertain. The borders of the Telangana state were sealed; I somehow managed to sneak home to Mumbai.
Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, was experiencing something unprecedented. The modern world had not experienced anything like this before. I had to pinch myself a couple of times to remind myself that I was not in an apocalyptic Hollywood movie. No private vehicles on the road, public transport virtually absent, and deserted streets.
The day I came back home, at 8 p.m., Prime Minister of India announced nationwide lockdown for 21 days. The lockdown kept increasing in the days to come as if we were in a time warp, while everyone around us remained in the present.
People started experiencing their ordinary lives, the supposedly “new normal”, hearing the urgent news advisories and directives, sharing posts on social distancing and about how life is going to unfold in the future. My everyday duty was to sanitize my mother’s cellphone, wallet and vehicle keys as she, being a government official, was stationed at one of the Public Health Centers for surveillance of doctors and nurses.
On May 3, I had a webinar to attend at 8 in the morning, and I woke up earlier than usual. The chirping and chattering of the birds were melodious in lockdown silence; the trees were blushing as there was stillness on the streets. “I need some help”, my mother whispered hoarsely. I rushed into her bedroom, and she was shivering inside the blanket.
As I searched for a thermometer, she murmured to my father, “You shouldn’t stay here,” as she got frightened dreading the coronavirus. The thermometer displayed 103°F. Amidst the soaking sweats, terrible aches and after hours of fever, I took her to the nearby hospital. Constantly reading stories of people being hospitalized, being put on ventilators to breathe, dying, sick with the same virus set the family environment in fear and trepidation. My father, being diabetic and suffering from hypertension, was certainly not a suitable choice to accompany her.
As soon as I entered the hospital, the fears echoed by the media regarding COVID-19 seemed absolutely true. At the reception, a man in his 40s with dark hair and glasses gave us a stern look while the other, who wore gloves, ran his hand through the stubble, seemingly oblivious when we entered. There were nervous humans applying sanitizers on their hands and checking if they were at enough distance from each other.
The attendant came to the desk and murmured, applied sanitizer to our hands, while the second attendant quietly gave us gloves. The doctor, pulling out long grueling shifts, with lack of proper mask, gown and eye gear, came in the OPD (out-patient department), and the nurse gave him the details. He inquired about the symptoms, and without doing any physical check-up, he asked us to get a swab test done for COVID-19 quickly.
For us, those 3-4 days when tests were done, and samples collected were overwhelming. We were already living inside the news stories of testing, people being quarantined, hospital bed shortages and the disease progression. The television at home was finally switched off for a few days. Suddenly, the neighbors started to ostracize my family. We felt stigmatized, lonely, and it felt like they looked at as only a contagion.
The stories of gardener not trimming the hedges of a COVID-19-recovered woman’s home; the veterinarian refused to treat a recovered man’s dog could be virtually imagined; we were outcast in a few hours. After a couple of horrifying days, I was sipping coffee, and an email popped in my cellphone; it was from the laboratory, the report showed the swab test was negative. We were relieved, the heartbeats were rising. It felt like we had won a war.
The hardest nights, when the fear and dread descended, had taken a step back from our lives, albeit, a thought crossed my mind: millions are living a dystopian story right now. A virus has changed the way we live, and there is always a presence of anxiety.
In the lockdown routine, with all the master-chef cooking, social media challenges and overwhelming Zoom calls, I had done brief volunteering with some friends serving food and water to migrant labourers. It was heart-wrenching to see the migrant labourers trudging unbelievable distances on foot towards their home and battling hunger.
Amidst the scorching heat of 38.5°C (101.3°F), extreme heat waves ravaging the body with dehydration, nausea, dizziness and cramps, the painful trek towards their villages with blisters on their feet with bags and children on their shoulders—the picture was painful. Despite such circumstances, the migrants’ everlasting thirst to reach their home compelled them to walk throughout. One of the workers said, “Ek purani chappal de do bhaisahab, khana mil jayega (Give me one pair of slippers brother, food can be arranged).”
The migrants were wearing the same sweaty clothes for days because it was too hard to change out of them. It was too hard to stay barefoot too. Some said, “It is better to die on the way back home than to die of hunger.” The silver lining in the dark clouds is that the pandemic has turned millions of people into good neighbors. Young people across India have organized food packages for the migrants on the highway. The soup kitchens are helping the differently-abled people.
The social fabric is going through a transformation in the pandemic, and we need to emerge stronger with a better balance in the future. The world we once knew, seems to have gone, perhaps forever. The human nature is not changed, and we are reminded that what we know is less than we do not know, about ourselves and the world we live in. Perhaps, societies have to go through their own trials and tribulations to address challenges and adjust to the demands of the time to survive. It seems that the world that I once knew was falling apart and breaking in a blink.