For two days, Jeetender Mahender, a 36-year-old Dalit sanitation worker, has not dared to leave his family’s shanty in the Valmiki slum of northern Mumbai, India, except to go to the toilet.
His situation is desperate. The tiny home has no running water or toilet, his family is low on food – and when he doesn’t go to work, he doesn’t get paid.
Mahender is trying to comply with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day nationwide lockdown, intended to help stop coronavirus spreading further among the country’s 1.3 billion people. India has recorded 1,024 cases and 27 deaths.
“Social distancing is not just for the sick, but for each and every person, including you and even your family,” Modi said in a nationwide address last week.
That might work for India’s middle and upper classes, who can hunker down in their condos and houses, preen their terrace gardens, eat from their well-stocked pantries and even work from home, using modern technology.
But the chaos unfolding across India in recent days has spelled out that for the 74 million people – one sixth of the urban population – who live cheek by jowl in the country’s slums, social distancing is going to be physically and economically impossible.
“The lanes are so narrow that when we cross each other, we cannot do it without our shoulders rubbing against the other person,” said Mahender. “We all go outdoors to a common toilet and there are 20 families that live just near my small house.
“We practically all live together. If one of us falls sick, we all will.”
At least one person in a Mumbai slum has already tested positive for the novel coronavirus. As panic grows among India’s most vulnerable, thousands of migrant workers are trying to flee the slums for their rural homes, by bus and even by foot, sparking fears they will import the virus to the countryside.
In a radio address Sunday, acknowledging the chaos the lockdown had brought India’s poor, Modi asked the nation for forgiveness. But he also urged listeners to understand there was no other option.