This week, India saw ‘corona festivals’, police slapping those out on the road during Covid-19 lockdown, Resident welfare association — RWA — groups clanging plates together and clapping at 5 pm, jostling at grocery stores right after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech and helpless migrant workers trying to get home cramped in container trucks. What was missing in all these instances? Social distancing — the very reason Modi had opted for a lockdown. In fact, in Maharashtra, a man was reportedly beaten up for sneezing without a mask – take a minute for the irony to sink in.
This is why the social distancing phenomenon is ThePrint’s newsmaker of the week.
Modi folded his hands twice in his televised address, requesting people to stay home. Everyone in his government is urging people to do the same. But in the first 24 hours itself, Telangana CM Chandrasekhar Rao said he wouldn’t hesitate to issue shoot-at-sight order for people who violate the lockdown rules.
Social distancing is a strategy that several countries are implementing in the coronavirus pandemic in order to flatten the curve. A new study has shown how lockdowns have resulted in decline of coronavirus cases within weeks. Like it or hate it, until a vaccine is developed, social distancing is the way to curb coronavirus.
But India is a country of 1.3 billion people, where the ninth person in a Metro coach asks eight others sitting on a seven-seater to ‘adjust‘. So, the 21-day lockdown is going to be a difficult ride.
A humanitarian crisis
The term ‘social distancing’ gained popularity in India when Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned it in his speech, asking people to follow a strict ‘Janata curfew’ on 22 March.
But the disdain for rules is so high that some Indians hit the streets shouting, “go corona go” in hoards when asked to stay indoors. Others congregated on balconies and roads to clang plates. Even the governor of Karnataka, Vajubhai Vala, banged thaalis to thank health and frontline workers, surrounded by at least 50 people, flouting the call for social distancing.
Shri.Vajubhai Vala, Hon’ble Governor of Karnataka and staff members with family rang the bells, clapped to thank medical staff, paramedical staff, Media etc.. who are doing their duty without fear to fight #Covid_19india. pic.twitter.com/YmAPmzVy7q
— Karnataka Varthe (@KarnatakaVarthe) March 22, 2020
For some people in India, social distancing is a threat to their survival, jobs and livelihood. The announcement of a lockdown has forced migrant labourers who depend on daily wages to head back to their villages, mostly on foot. Most of them have no homes in cities, no transport option and no assurance from the government.
This has raised concerns that social distancing in India might soon become a humanitarian crisis.
Another problem in the way of social distancing is the planning of cities in India. Every nook and corner has been utilised to accommodate people, making areas densely populated. Social distancing is impractical for those living in slums and crowded areas. How can you practice social distancing if you live in a two-room apartment with six people?
So, Indians did what they do best — jugaad. After the initial hiccups and panic-buying, people have been coming up with innovative strategies to practise social distancing.
Choosing to lead by example, chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee hit the streets of Kolkata, drawing circles with whatever she found —a brick or chalk — and marking ‘safe’ spaces.
— ANI (@ANI) March 26, 2020
Understanding the gravity of Covid-19 pandemic, some organisations took the call for social distancing seriously. The result is that offices have adopted work-from-home with most organisations urging their employees to avoid travel and stay indoors.
Around the world
Countries that were hit by coronavirus before India have taken drastic measures to ensure social distancing.
The usage of the term social distancing, however, is being discouraged by experts and the WHO, which started using the term ‘physical distancing’ last week. Experts believe that in our fight against disasters, including coronavirus, social ties should be strengthened while maintaining physical distance.
Singapore has decided to jail people for six months if they are found violating the norms of distancing. In Australia, people who don’t follow social distancing rules in the state of New South Wales will be fined.
China, the country where the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected, put Wuhan in a two-month lockdown. Apart from suspending entry to foreigners, China has also employed heavy surveillance to monitor people in quarantine.
Embracing social distancing seems to be India’s only option now if we want to flatten the curve.
Views are personal.