It was 6.30 pm and the sky was still lit. Walking towards the Santacruz market, I was figuring out how best to avoid the crowd and avoid contact with anyone or anything apart from what I had to buy. I had my hand sanitiser ready. After all, the last few days had been spent trying to steer clear of the notorious coronavirus: work from home, social distancing for the past four days. Finally today, I stepped out for a short walk and some grocery shopping.
I had walked a few hundred metres from my building, when BEST bus no. 231 connecting Juhu and Santacruz station, passed by, stirring up a dust cloud in its wake. As the haze cleared, I could see that social distancing on the streets of Mumbai, particularly during rush hours, was near impossible.
It was that time of the day when office goers were returning from work. Roads leading up to the Santacruz station were choc-a-bloc with hundreds stepping out of the station and as many entering to catch the suburban train back home. The noise of
evening traffic, auto rickshaws and shouts of roadside hawkers selling fruits, vegetables and daily essentials filled the air.
In the crowds a few faces, about four in ten were covered with scarves, or a thin chiffon
dupatta. Some had cotton, hosiery material cloth, stitched like a mask and others were wearing a light blue-coloured mask that looked washed and worn out. Some men had handkerchiefs tied around their necks that were intermittently used as a mask in between wiping away sweat. Many felt secure with just their mouth covered. I wondered how this piece of cloth could be a shield from any virus or pathogen, let alone against the dreaded coronavirus.
Regular news on TV and in the newspapers about the coronavirus has made some people cautious, forcing them to wear a mask, but for the larger populace life moves on as usual. There is no time to slow down.
I bumped into an acquaintance who was coming out of the railway station, with a
dupatta round her mouth. She said at least if someone coughs in the train I am secured with this covering. “Train mein peak office hours mein bheed hoti hai, abhi kam hai thodi lekin phir bhi baithne ko seat nahi mili aaj” (Local trains are crowded during peak office hours, although crowds have reduced, I still did not get to sit.)," she laments. She works as an office receptionist in a small private firm. On enquiring if she is going to be working from home anytime soon, she shook her head sullenly. Maharashtra chief minister and the state’s health department have been advising companies to adopt work from home as much as possible.
Listening to our conversation, a middle aged man walking past us shouted, “Bade log ghar par baith sakte hai, hum nahi.” (Rich people can sit at home, not us.)
I walked ahead to buy vegetables and just as I approached a vendor I found myself caught in a crowd. I moved to the other side and quickly purchased a few vegetables trying to maintain distance from a middle-aged lady also at the stall. While paying, I enquired if the shopkeeper, who was wearing a cotton mask, was aware of the coronavirus and if he was following precautionary hygiene as advised by the government. "Haan sune hai koi virus hai. Jab shaam ko dukaan lagate hai tab ek baar haath dhote hai, uske baad time kahan hota hai madam. Ye mask to customer ne lagane ke liye bola hai humein," said the guy packing cauliflower in a newspaper bag. (Have heard of a virus. We wash our hands once when we set up our shops, after that we don't get time. Customers ask us to wear masks.)
"Bimari failane wala virus hai. Par madam yahan nahi hai. Aur bazaar mein paani layenge kahan se haath dhone ke liye, baar baar dukaan chod kar haath dhone nahi ja sakte. Hum bhi chahte hain par kar nahi pate," the banana vendor next to him pitched in. (I know this virus causes illness. But it is not here in our area. From where will we source water for regular hand washing. We can't leave our shops every now and then to wash hands. Even we want to but we are unable to do so.)
A few other hawkers just stared at me with a perplexed look when I asked them the same query.
A fruit seller showed me a hand sanitiser, and said he used it every few minutes.
The situation was similar inside a mobile phone store in the area. "Aise hi market down hai, jo thode customers aate hai unko jaldi jaldi samaan dikhana hota hai." (The market is down anyways. We need to quickly show our wares when the few customers walk in.)
The confectionery and grocery stores were operating as usual. No masks, no sanitisers and no sanitisation at counters or shelves.
A little ahead as I picked up milk packets from a store, I enquired again on how the store owner was managing to keep clean at an essential commodity store. Smirking, the man said he washes his hands three to four times and, pointing to a used handkerchief round his neck, said that he wears a mask too at times. “Abhi garmi lag rahi thi to hata diya hai.” (It's quite hot now so I removed it.)A 20-minute visit to a local market left me perplexed. Santacruz is just a microcosm but representative of how the maximum city operates. The situation will be similar in some other bigger cities across the country.
Store owners come in contact with multiple people and do not have the resources to stave off possible coronavirus infections.
While there has been a general sense of awareness about hygiene as the numbers of people testing positive in Maharashtra and the whole country is rising fast, people lack clarity.
Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn are flooded with posts talking about flattening the curve. Every single expert on TV is saying the same, but no one has stepped out to explain it to the general public what it means. Most people on the street and many in our families have still not being understood why they are being asked to do certain things. Why are schools closed, why are people being advised to work from home, why no kitty parties, why no visits to the church or no Is completely shutting down cities an option? I am not sure considering the
satsangs. impact it can have on daily life especially on the marginalised and daily wage workers. But the government will need to ramp up awareness drives and clear misinformation, particularly in mandating that at least 50 percent of the people work from home in the days to come.