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India returns to action in Unlock 1.0 — with fever guns, new habits and longing for the old

With malls, restaurants and religious places reopening, India is uneasily but surely coming back to life, but in the shadow of the coronavirus.

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Should we open? Should we not? Should we open? Should we not? It seemed like India was plucking petals before the Narendra Modi government decided to put Unlock 1.0 into force on 8 June.

Unlock 1.0 was announced after more than two months of coronavirus-induced lockdown. Around the same time, India became the fourth-worst Covid-19 affected country in the world and cases inched closer to the three-lakh mark. But it was a question of lives versus livelihoods. Restaurants, religious places, shopping centres and malls gingerly opened their doors this week.

While the Modi government released a set of guidelines for unlocking, it was up to the states to tailor them to their requirements. But by then, most states were in a mess. Kerala and Delhi chose to seal their borders on Day 1, but the latter opened them a week later. Maharashtra remained largely under lockdown, Punjab and Haryana more or less followed the Centre’s guidelines, and food vendors reappeared on the streets of Chhattisgarh.

For the past few days, India has been finally learning to live with the virus, and that’s why Unlock 1.0 is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: India is being forced to unlock during pandemic. But it’s no green zone yet

Work and worship

India is stepping out — to temples, mosques, work — armed with masks, sanitisers and, sometimes, gloves. Only to come back and rigorously wash everything.

We can bid goodbye to images of clear blue skies and breathing fresh air as cities across India come back to life, and with it, their choked streets. Mumbai is already experiencing traffic. Since workplaces are now allowed to function with 100 per cent staff, work from home is no longer the norm. But are Indians willing to go out if their life or salary doesn’t depend on it?

We are a country obsessed with religion, but thankfully not enough to step out to visit a mandir, masjid, church or gurdwara during a pandemic, even though the government has allowed it. On 8 June, religious places opened all over the country, but Delhi’s Jama Masjid (which has now decided to stay shut until 30 June), Bangla Sahib Gurdwara and Hanuman Mandir saw a thin crowd. Andhra Pradesh’s Tirupati temple also saw a similar sight. And Delhi’s Nizamuddin Dargah chose to remain closed.

While half of India is still figuring out how to wear a mask properly, including some of our leading politicians, priests in Varanasi have included the gods in their Covid-fighting ritual too. Also, visitors to the temples have been asked not to touch the dieties.

But for the devotees who had been kept away from their gods for over two months, such guidelines mean little when they see the temple doors finally open. On the first day of Unlock 1, people visiting the Hanuman Mandir in Delhi made sure to touch every deity, wall, or any spot that even remotely generated a sense of being ‘holy’.

Also read: Sanitation tunnels, thermal screening, thin crowd — new normal at Delhi’s religious places

Going out for a bite

While many of us were daydreaming about that one restaurant we will go to or the holiday we will plan the moment thelockdown lifts — now that the opportunity has arisen, are we really up for it?

The hospitality sector was one of the worst-hit due to the lockdown. Occupancy dropped by more than half in March 2020, as compared to last year, while “revenue per available room collapsed by 64 per cent in March compared to the previous month”.

The food and beverage industry will perhaps be the last sector to pick up pace. A loss of Rs 80,000 crore was predicted till May-end by the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI). With an estimated 90 per cent of restaurants functioning on lease, recovering rent at a time like this is close to impossible.

The NRAI had also stated that it expected 50 per cent of India’s restaurants to shut down by May-end. Proving those statistics true, Khan Market’s beloved Cafe Turtle and eight other outlets have already shut down. But the lucky few that have managed to survive the lockdown are doing everything they can to secure customers, even if it means putting a glass partition bang in the middle of a table.

However, adjusting to the new rules may also take some time, or even cost a restauranteur her business. Case in point being a restaurant in West Delhi that got a closure notice from the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) for violating social distancing norms during a birthday celebration. The lockdown hit the industry hard, but negligence of this sort will only compound their losses further. 

Malls and shopping centres also opened up, but footfall has remained low. While many retailers chose not to resume business, those who did saw few customers turn up. For people in Uttar Pradesh, though, it was a different quandary. The traders’ body in the state has decided to open the malls but not the shops inside them, leaving the people wondering whether to visit the malls or not. Clearly, online shopping is going to have a bigger shelf-life. For young lovers separated by the lockdown now find the food courts appealing and a better avenue for their pandemic-style dates than they would have in pre-Covid times.

Also read: When should Indian schools physically reopen? The best answer is: not yet

Unlocking uneasily 

India’s Unlock 1.0 has been a heady mix of rules, regulations and nostalgia. Often compounded by amnesia — people forgetting masks, safe distances, and that the virus is still around.

Stepping out of your house will no longer be the same. Wherever you go, there will be a gun to your head (to check your temperature), sanitiser bottles will be your new accessory, and painted circles on the floor will tell you where to stand. These are the new ‘normals’ we must accept to resume public life, because a lockdown cannot go on forever.

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