Current News



For many Indians in lockdown, the biggest concern isn't coronavirus; it's hunger

Shashank Bengali and Parth M.N., Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MUMBAI, India -- The biggest lockdown in human history -- 1.3 billion Indians ordered to stay home to curb the spread of the coronavirus -- has unleashed chaos across the country as stranded migrant workers sleep in city streets, police beat curfew-breakers, fruits and vegetables rot in markets, and masses of informal laborers find their livelihoods wiped out.

The first two days of the lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have thrown the lives of some of India's poorest people into disarray. A total shutdown of trains and buses has prevented countless migrant workers from returning to their villages, forcing them into makeshift shelters or open fields where they are subsisting on food handouts, and hand-washing and social distancing are impossible.

"This is a complete catastrophe," said Ranu Bhogal, campaigns director for Oxfam India.

For many Indians, contracting the coronavirus -- in a country with a vastly underequipped health sector even in normal times -- is suddenly a less urgent concern than finding their next meal.

It is a startling moment, the latest dangerous chapter in a global pandemic. Modi enacted the three-week lockdown Tuesday with just four hours' notice, leaving no time for millions of construction workers, street vendors, cleaners and other Indians -- who earn daily or weekly wages in a vast informal economy -- to secure salaries or reach their homes.

Some migrant workers, wearing masks and backpacks, were attempting to walk hundreds of miles to their villages, defying the stay-at-home orders and risking beatings by police. In Mumbai, India's financial capital, scores have been sleeping in the open near a train station after local leaders banned interstate travel last week.


Many wander the surrounding area during the day, looking for food or an open grocery store to charge their phones, and using a public toilet to keep clean. Others doze under trees, their heads resting on their bags as they wait for food handouts.

"What should I do?" Ruhul Amin, a 28-year-old construction worker from the state of West Bengal, said when asked about contracting the virus. "I know I'm coming in contact with others, I know I am at risk. But this is about survival."

Amin said police have been unsympathetic, beating up those who ask for help. Authorities have set up WhatsApp hotlines for migrant workers to seek assistance, but Amin doesn't have a smartphone.

"We can't sleep under the open sky for 21 days," he said. "There are hundreds of us, and it is impossible to follow social distancing."


swipe to next page


blog comments powered by Disqus