NEW DELHI - “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” said Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers. Living in the teeming Indian capital for more than four decades, I easily could have added another two items: the incessant clamor of traffic, and perpetual crowds in public places.
Until the coronavirus pandemic changed that.
I cruise along an eight-lane arterial road that ferries officegoers in New Delhi to a vibrant business hub bordering the city. It is eerily empty, a sight I never imagined possible when I used to negotiate this dreaded commute, repeatedly checking Google Maps in hopes that the clogged roads had magically cleared.
It has happened, though not quite the way I had wished for. I encounter only a handful of vehicles and two police barricades. In a city notorious for flouting rules, police check every vehicle to enforce a strict lockdown that has been in place for the past 10 days. I can venture out only because of my press card.
The once noisy, bustling capital, home to 20 million people, is now surreal, a virtual ghost city.
Small roadside shacks that made a living selling piping hot tea in winter and cold drinks in summer are shuttered. The street carts that sold meals like omelets and bread to the line of auto rickshaw drivers who waited for customers outside a shopping mall near my home have gone. Fuel stations are open but there are virtually no customers. I spot only three members of a family trudging along the road, along with a few deliverymen.
Glitzy advertisements on hoardings have been replaced with health messages about the coronavirus: “Keep minimum six feet distance;” “Practice frequent hand washing with soap;” “Say Namaste Instead of Handshake.”
The ever-vibrant business hub adjoining New Delhi, the aspirational office address for young people, is desolate, its tall glass and chrome buildings silhouetted against vacant streets.
Inside my gated residential complex in Gurugram on the edge of New Delhi, walkers and joggers who liven up the road inside the community every morning and evening are missing — people are not supposed to step out of their homes for exercise, only for essential jobs. And gone is the army of cooks, maids and gardeners who walked in every morning.
A friend stops outside my gate to chat for a few minutes. He tells me he went out briefly to pay his maid her monthly salary — she was down to her last $5.
That is the worry for millions of low-income workers who have no credit cards, no bank balances and were caught in the lockdown announced with just four hours’ notice on March 24 before they were paid their wages.
We are all painfully aware that the worst consequences of the virus brought by overseas travelers from the middle classes and the elite are being borne by the poor.
The men running the small grocery and vegetable shop in my complex tell me they are lucky because they have not had to pull down their shutters. The grocery shop’s stocks are running low after the wave of panic buying. There are no more sodas and chips for customers to consume as they while away quiet evenings watching television. But the vegetable shop owner is doing brisk business as most people hesitate to venture outside the complex.
In some countries, people who cannot hunker down inside their homes because they have to work may not count themselves fortunate at this time. But for millions of Indians in the lower economic strata, like these shop owners, protecting livelihoods is a far bigger worry than the coronavirus.
“I use a mask when I go to the wholesale market to pick up vegetables. Other than that, I don’t care. If something has to happen to me, nothing can stop it,” the vegetable shop owner, Shankar, tells me cheerfully, echoing the fatalistic philosophy that millions down the economic strata swear by in this country.
While announcing the lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told citizens, “Remember when there is life, there is hope,” to drive home the need for the drastic measure.
That message might have been lost on six daily wage laborers whom I had watched for months refurbishing a house opposite mine. The project is stalled. Were they among the tens of thousands of migrant laborers who walked hundreds of kilometers to their villages — the only refuge for unemployed labor when jobs are lost and money runs out?
With everything at a standstill, the twitter of birds has replaced the clamor of a noisy city. The spring has lasted longer than usual, and flowers are still in bloom. The skies in the world’s most polluted capital have turned blue — something a city typically shrouded in gray smog would have celebrated with gusto in normal times. I can switch off the air purifier and open the windows to let in air that is the cleanest in years.
Although we are breathing fresher air, none of us is breathing easy as we exchange one public health threat for an even deadlier one. We all know that cities like mine, with a massive population, will struggle the most if the infection spins out of control.