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No refuge for India's rich and middle class from second COVID-19 wave

David Pierson, Parth M.N. and Varsha Torgalkar, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In Mumbai, India's financial center, a COVID-19 war room was set up to help the city's residents locate hospital beds and ventilators. Workers there say pleas for help are coming overwhelmingly from more affluent neighborhoods rather than poorer ones — none bigger than Dharavi, a slum of nearly a million residents made famous by the 2008 Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire."

Panic and chaos have so far not gripped Dharavi, where families live in tiny 8-by-8-foot rooms, dotted along the narrow alleys through which people have to squeeze past each other. The shanties are situated so close that the alleys in between see little to no sunlight regardless of the time of the day.

In April, Dharavi recorded 17% of the infections in its ward, known as G-North, even though it comprises 70% of G-North's population (deaths, however, have been disproportionately high because of co-morbidities such as tuberculosis and pneumonia). Those figures align with reports that suggest that 90% of Mumbai's cases are being detected in apartment towers and areas outside the slums.

But Dharavi remains precarious and susceptible. More than two-thirds of its residents share 450 public toilets. Despite hope that residents have developed immunities from first-wave infections, officials remain on edge and have ordered toilets sanitized in Dharavi at least five times a day and door-to-door screenings for feverish temperatures.

When Kailash Jethwa, 53, his wife, Ramila, 50, and their three children tested positive for the virus the last week of March, officials moved in to carry out contact tracing. Dozens of people were isolated and monitored after the family was moved to a quarantine facility.

"The officials still check up on us regularly," Jethwa said.

Officials say the slums will need mass vaccination programs. But vaccine hesitancy abounds among the poor, fueled by misinformation shared on WhatsApp. One typical message falsely warned women not to get vaccinated during menstruation because it would reduce their immunity.

"I have heard a lot of people fell sick, got fevers and headaches or felt heavy in their arms after getting their first dose," said Mohammad Ali, 51, who works as a tailor in Dharavi.


An even bigger question is when India will have enough vaccine to stanch the outbreak. Supplies are low after the government failed to anticipate a second wave. This, despite India being home to the world's largest manufacturer of vaccines, the Serum Institute. Procurement has been chaotic, with states complaining of being charged higher prices than the central government.

A prolonged crisis could devastate India's middle class, which had grown steadily for decades until the pandemic. A Pew Research Center study estimates the nation's middle class shrunk by 32 million last year while the number of poor in India grew by 75 million.

Before the arrival of COVID-19, Jimmy Tiwari lived comfortably as a schoolteacher and single mother of one son in Pune. When she lost her job in March of last year, she quickly ran out of savings and turned to her parents to survive. To stretch her money, she and her son almost only eat rice and lentils each day.

"I don't remember the last time I went shopping or ordered food from a restaurant," said Tiwari, 42, who has yet to find another job. "There is no way I can even think of such small pleasures. Now it looks more difficult with this second wave."


(Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondents Parth M.N. from Mumbai and Torgalkar from Pune.)

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