NEW DELHI - From hawking belts and clothes to utensils and toys, vendors at a newly reopened weekly street market in the Indian capital are impatient to resume business, but pre-pandemic crowds of customers are missing.   
 
“I used to make about two to five dollars,” Jaiprakash Gupta said, hoping a passerby would stop at his jeans and shirts stall.   
 
“But I have not even sold a single item so far. For two hours I have not seen a single customer,” he said.   
 
Held across the city, thousands of vendors carry their wares from one market to another through the week to pavements in several neighborhoods, where millions of lower-income people shop. In a city of 20 million, they have provided a good source of income for thousands who have migrated into the city to make a living.     
 
However, a surge in coronavirus cases in Delhi after a monthlong decline has made customers wary about the weekly markets.
 
“By this time before March, there used to be a huge rush, now there is nobody,” said Mohammad Shaizan, looking despondently down the street.   
 
The COVID-19 pandemic is raging in India – half of the country's nearly four million cases were added in August, the highest monthly tally in the world since the pandemic began.   
 
However, authorities are lifting restrictions swiftly as they focus on mitigating the devastating impact of the pandemic on millions of people.
 
The economy shrank by 24% from April to June when a stringent lockdown wiped out businesses. It was India’s biggest economic collapse since it began publishing gross domestic product data in 1996. The impact has been hardest on those depending on India’s vast informal economy, such as weekly markets.
   
Public health experts say restoring economic activity is a step in the right direction as they flag concerns about long-term health risks posed by the devastating loss of incomes.    
 
“There are huge consequences in terms of nutrition among children, immunization services are disrupted and these things are likely to have an impact down the line, two or three years or maybe even longer,” said Kapil Yadav, assistant professor of community medicine at the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.
 
“Children used to get a free midday meal in school, now even schools are shut,” he said.    
 
The government has been giving free cereals, such as wheat, rice and lentils, to 800 million Indians since the lockdown and will continue to do so until November.   
 
That helped stave off hunger but was not enough, the vendors at this market said.
 
“I was not able to get any work, so it was difficult to buy vegetables and milk for children,” belt stall owner Ram Kishore said.

FILE - People shop for clothes at the Janpath market in New Delhi, India, June 1, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Clothes stall owner Mohammad Shaizan’s family of six had to cut back on portions and the struggle to feed his family is on his mind.
 
“I am scared of contracting coronavirus,” he said, “But to survive we must work. Even if the virus does not catch us, we could die of hunger.”   
 
Authorities say they are taking steps to minimize risks as they set up pavement markets. A van at the street corner stands ready to conduct tests, and repeated announcements are made about safety measures. Stalls have been set up at a distance from each other.   
 
“We have put a sanitizing machine at the market’s entrance.  All the stalls have sanitizers and we hand out masks to whoever does not have one,” Harish Chardra Narang, who heads the Weekly Market Welfare Association, said.   
 
As businesses resume, epidemiologists say it is important to convince people to continue public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Masks often dangle below wearers’ chins.    
 
 “We need to avoid crowds, closed spaces and close contacts and ensure that everyone wear masks till there is a vaccine,” Giridhar R. Babu, epidemiologist and professor with the Public Health Foundation of India, said.
 
“That is going to be a challenge because people think it is over, let's get back to our normal lives,” he said.
 
He said India must spread the message via civil society, social media and women’s groups.   
 
According to Babu, while India, with its 1.3 billion population, may be on course for the world’s highest number of infections eventually, the country’s low mortality rate is a silver lining. With nearly 69,000 deaths, India is the fourth-worst affected country for mortalities, but the number of deaths per million is far lower than in Western nations.   
 
However, as people hesitate to visit places such as weekly markets that they consider unsafe because of the pandemic, hope is turning to despondency among many vendors.   
 
Handing out some rations to a customer, Harigobind Singh fears the economic scars of the pandemic will not disappear anytime soon, given an uncertain future.     
   
Singh had hoped to recall his extended family from the village where they went during India’s long shutdown after restarting his stall. Looking around at the empty street, though, he said he is not so sure.   
   
“I don’t know if this work can continue. It was very different earlier, our earnings were very good,” he said.
 
“Just two of us support 20 family members. Now only I know how we are coping.”  
 

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