Pacing through the labyrinth of old Delhi, a place where life usually leaks out of every crack, I found myself straining my ears for the familiar sounds of chaos. But gone were the noises of the teeming vegetable markets and the horns of rickshaws piled so high with baskets they seem to defy the laws of physics; gone were the calls of the chai wallahs, the hiss of parathas on the griddle and the loud bleating of the goats who, in winter months, are dressed in bright jumpers to protect them from the cold. This was late March, days after a nationwide lockdown was imposed across India, and Delhi had never seemed so silent.
Reporting on south Asia during the pandemic has been a strange, and at times frustrating, experience. The strict lockdown meant state borders were shut, trains were stopped for the first time in history and all domestic and international flights grounded. I was stuck in Delhi, a city I love and call my home, but which is also a notorious bubble in which it can be hard to get a real sense of what is going on across the rest of India.
I had always taken for granted the ability to board a plane or train at any minute, turn up in a remote corner of India and be welcomed into people’s homes as they recounted extraordinary, brave or tragic stories while plying you with so much sugary chai it made your teeth ache. During lockdown, I was lucky enough to be able to work with a brilliant network of contacts, local journalists and activists across the region, who could keep their ears to the ground and help sort truth from social-media-fuelled misinformation, but as I reported on several tragedies from afar it was hard not to feel that something vital was being lost.
© Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters Migrant workers trying to board a bus out of Delhi to return to their home villages after the government imposed a lockdown with four days’ notice in March.
When news of India’s first case of coronavirus broke in January – long before new cases were hitting 90,000 a day – it seemed hard to shake the feeling that India might suffer worst of all.
This is a country of over 1.3bn people, where upwards of 70 million people live in extreme poverty; where it is common for three or four generations to live in a single home and where personal space is a luxury; where millions move around the country every day for work and millions more live in cramped, slum-like conditions in sprawling cities; and where the healthcare system is already struggling, overburdened and exploitative in many areas. Historically, too, pandemics have a painful legacy here: during the 1918 Spanish flu, up to 20 million Indians died – roughly 6% of the population.
For the first few months, however, the pandemic began as more of slow burn. The nationwide lockdown, announced with just four hours’ notice in mid-March, initially served its purpose, and while Europe and the US were convulsed with rising cases and overflowing morgues, India’s infections grew at a comparatively slow rate.
Instead, the pressing story was that of a human-made humanitarian crisis emerging on India’s roadsides. The sudden lockdown had left millions of India’s migrant workers without jobs, hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away from home and without any means to make money. Starved of food and options, most just began walking home.
© Provided by The Guardian Protesters demonstrating the Modi government’s new citizenship law. Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images
Reporting at Ghazipur, Delhi’s state border with Uttar Pradesh – where migrant workers were crossing over with all their possessions and food, their children clutching their hands or sitting on wheelie suitcases – the atmosphere was one of fear, confusion and chaos.
Most people had little concern for coronavirus. Some desperately attempted to board the few buses, others lamented about trying to feed their families on a 200-mile walk to their villages with just a few remaining roti. Police armed with wooden lathi sticks lashed ruthlessly out at some of the workers, who moved over the border in a giant human crush. Not a single person I encountered had been tested for the virus, and it was clear that social distancing was a luxury not being afforded to India’s poor.
Yet alongside the human tragedy, there has been a less tangible but equally concerning victim of the pandemic: Indian democracy. In the months prior to the arrival of the virus, the country had gone through a historic democratic uprising, as tens of millions from across religions, classes and castes took to the streets in protest against a new citizenship law seen as discriminatory to Muslims.
It was the first mass protests against prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist BJP government, and in particular it galvanised Muslim women, many of whom had no previous experience of political engagement, to stage huge sit-in protests, first in Delhi and then across the country. Despite police violence and political condemnation, these protesters refused to be silenced.
But coronavirus succeeded where Modi’s government had failed, and while the world was preoccupied with the pandemic, the state tightened its authoritarian grip. Under the guise of lockdown, all anti-government protests were cleared and gatherings were banned. In Delhi, police began rounding up and arresting many of those who had been involved in the anti-government protests, accusing them of terrorism-related charges. Meanwhile, more than 50 journalists reporting critically on the coronavirus crisis have been rounded up and arrested.
With India now claiming the fastest-growing Covid-19 infection rate in the world, and experts predicting it will eventually overtake the US to claim the most cases globally, the true scale of the country’s coronavirus tragedy is still unknown. Journalists are also faced with a growing agenda of obfuscation, with state governments accused of covering up the real Covid death toll, the national government pushing the rosy narrative that India has one of the best recovery rates and lowest mortality rates in the world, and Modi no longer mentioning the pandemic in public speeches.
Yet for all the bleak predictions, there is also an overwhelming culture of resilience and resourcefulness in India, even in the face of problems that seem insurmountable; there’s even a Hindi word for this, jugaad. I have been away from Delhi for a few weeks, but as I head back to a city where the chai wallahs and fruit stalls have loudly returned to the streets, where trains once again screech piercingly along the tracks and where talk has turned to how to hold a socially distanced Diwali party, it is clear that not even a pandemic can keep India silent for very long.