Lenith Lepcha, a south Delhi beautician and mother of a toddler, never thought she would miss the city’s infamous traffic snarls. But now, “when I hear honking cars, I feel reassured. We’re limping back to normal,” she says. It is a long way back. On 24 March, with just a few hours’ notice, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19. Delhi’s rich and poor alike rushed to stock up on essentials, unsure of what lay ahead.
All through April and May, Delhi looked “like a ghost town even during the day”, as Lepcha puts it. Photographs went viral of Delhi’s usually polluted skies; now they were a perfect blue. The lockdown has been gradually eased, but it has wrecked India’s economy and transformed life in its capital, a city of more than 20 million people. The worst-hit are casual workers and daily wagers, who make up most of the country’s labour force. India as a whole has been struck hard by the virus, with the second most confirmed Covid-19 cases in the world and, at time of writing, more than 79,000 dead. Since the first case in Delhi was reported on 2 March, more than 4,700 have died in the city and cases there have surged in recent weeks. The spring panic has ebbed, but fear remains.
The Delhi government, which is run by the Aam Aadmi Party, says the growth in cases is due to more widespread testing; it rules out another lockdown.
In the streets, people are most worried about their daily chapati. Economic activities are resuming, but little by little. Migrant workers who had left the city in the wake of the lockdown have started returning, though now their faces are behind mandatory masks, with stiff penalties for those who do not wear one. Many casual labourers and domestic help simply wrap a handkerchief or a scarf around their faces. Shopping centres, public parks and liquor stores are open, though cinemas remain closed, and the pre-Covid era crowds have evaporated. City buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws are running, and the metro rail has reopened. Offices are allowed to open, though many have not – people are working from home. Restaurants and beauty salons can function as long as every second table or chair is left vacant, and many shops are still shuttered; temperature checks and disinfectant sprays are ubiquitous. There is little footfall.
In some ways, the reopening has brought new challenges. Delhi’s government distributed free meals to the city’s poor during the strictest phase of the lockdown. But with the economy allowed to open up, free meals are harder to get. Sikh shrines are among the few continuing their soup kitchens. On the pavement opposite Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in the heart of Delhi, many of the city’s homeless and poor queue up for a free meal. Rabina Devi, a middle-aged homeless mother of four, goes every day to collect lunch for her family. Until recently, she worked as a bricklayer. Her husband was a daily-wage labourer. “Neither of us has any work now,” she says.
Like everyone else, Lepcha is coming to terms with the new normal. She now wears a mask and a face-shield at work. Her biggest worry is money: she did not get her salary in April and May. The parlour where she works reopened in early June, but customers are barely trickling in. Lepcha says she now gets 40 per cent of her monthly salary. Her husband, a chef, took a loan earlier this year to start his own fast-food business. Lepcha worries about how they will repay the loan on top of the rent. The pandemic has taken from people, and still, somehow, it is the people who end up with the debt.
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid