Patna, Lucknow: In the states of Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, both beset by limited testing capabilities, it’s difficult to believe the country is still under lockdown.
In the midst of the third phase of the nationwide lockdown, normal life has more or less resumed in both states, even though cases are rising.
When ThePrint visited several parts of Bihar including Patna, Muzaffarpur, Chapra, Saran from 3 May to 9 May, it found that there was little regard for the lockdown, with people openly flouting norms and hardly adhering to social distancing.
There were crowded markets, a virtual absence of masks, children out in the open playing cricket, rickshaws plying on the streets, and people sitting in large groups — all seem to be high on confidence that the virus won’t hit them.
“Corona yahan aa kar bhasm ho jayega, ye Bihar hai (Coronavirus will be reduced to ashes here. This is Bihar,” Ram Anuj Rai of Gopalpur constituency told ThePrint, summing up the current mood in Bihar amid one of the worst pandemics of all times.
This, despite 37 of the 38 districts of Bihar have now reported coronavirus cases, with the total reaching 696 as of Monday morning. All districts are either in the red or orange zone.
The Bihar government fears the numbers will only increase as scores of migrants are making their way back to the state. “The cases that have been reported from Muzaffarpur are those who came two days back in a train and have been quarantined,” said a senior state government official.
But even as new cases are being reported, enforcement of lockdown rules in small towns and districts has been lax to the point of being almost non-existent.
Social distancing, masks go for a toss in Bihar
Apart from social distancing, another common feature in Bihar was the lack of masks.
For the third extension of the lockdown, which began on 4 May, the central government has allowed offices to open with 33 per cent staff strength but has called for maintaining social distancing with masks being mandatory.
But on 5 May in Patna, the locatilies of Phulwari Sharif, Kautilya Nagar and Sabzi Bagh were crowded with children playing cricket and large crowds in grocery and medical stores.
“This is the main market for buying medicines and medical products and tends to get crowded,” said a worker ThePrint met in Sabzi Bagh area of Patna who had come to buy medicines but wasn’t wearing a mask. “We have been wearing masks regularly but it gets really suffocating so I took it off for a while. We also have to start functioning normally and can’t stay indoors all the time.”
On 7 May in Chapra, there were large groups of people chatting on the streets. Missing from the conversation and on the ground were masks.
“Log gamcha pehan lete hai but hum log ke yahan corona nahi hai. Mask yahan bheja nahi gaya aur humne khareeda bhi nahi (People use towels to cover their face. We didn’t get masks from the government and we didn’t buy either),” said a resident of Chapra.
Bihar Police personnel were on the streets urging people to stay home but it fell on deaf ears.
According to a number of people ThePrint interacted with in the districts and villages, they maintained social distancing during the first phase of the lockdown and took precautions but not anymore.
“The lockdown was being strictly followed by everyone during the first phase. But with many activities now allowed, it is difficult to keep a tab on everyone. How much will the government enforce? People have responsibilities too,” said a senior official in Bihar health department.
No better in UP
Many districts and towns of Uttar Pradesh are also giving stiff competition to Bihar, when it comes to not adhering to social distancing norms and lockdown rules. UP, however, is faring worse. The state has 3,467 cases as of Monday.
ThePrint had visited Lucknow, Hardoi, Gorakhpur, Sant Kabir Nagar and Agra at various times during the lockdown.
In Lucknow, from 28 April to 30 April, when the lockdown had not been eased, many people were roaming the streets in groups and even visiting government offices.
In Viraj Khand area of Lucknow on 28 April, ThePrint found most residents not wearing masks, with a few women using sarees to cover their faces.
But the residents have their own reasons for not adhering to the rules.
“Sarkaar keh rahein hai doori banaa kar raho, iss baat ko hum maante hai. Lekin madam, agar ek gadi aaya usmein 100 packet roti hai aur 500 aadmi daud rahein hai toh hum roti ko dekhe ya doori ko? Hum roti ko dekhenge, doori ko nahi kyunki hum bhookh se mar rahein hai (The government is saying maintain social distancing. We agree that is required. But imagine if one car comes carrying 100 packets of rotis and there are 500 of us running for it. Should we then worry about maintaining social distancing or filling our stomachs. We will worry about food as we will end up dying of hunger first before the coronavirus),” said 40-year-old Lakhan, a migrant labourer who has been working in Lucknow for the past few years.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.