Two years ago on March 24, life as we knew it changed as the “new normal” took over with the Covid-19 pandemic spurring India’s very first lockdown. Unbeknownst to anyone, the initial 21-day period would spill over into almost two whole years. As a lucky few (read: those with class privilege) emerged with “life skills” in the sudden quietude that followed, taking up cooking and grocery shopping, scores were displaced all over the country. Migrant workers (later, and more sensitively, called guest workers) walked miles upon miles between cities like their lives depended on it, because they did. Where on one hand, Instagram reels with their first cohort of niche celebrities started popping up; on the other, there were photos of corpses floating in the Ganga and rotis scattered over railway tracks. Like never before, the pandemic exposed the rifts in our society: the faultlines along which we have always been divided.
As some stood on their balconies in wonder, waxing poetic about the hitherto unknown shade of blue that the sky had turned in the absence of pollution, others were sitting by the side of the streets, not knowing what had happened to their families. Two years later, as mask mandates and lockdown restrictions have been relaxed globally (notwithstanding the fact that future fears still loom), here are a few monumental moments from the initial days of the lockdown.
Masks, sanitisers, and a hoarding problem
Masks and sanitisers became a part of our daily lives, and the first rush of panic-buying led to hoarding of these items. Even before the lockdown was announced, on March 13, the government declared face masks and hand sanitisers as essential commodities for the next 100 days as it stepped up efforts to boost supply and prevent hoarding. The Centre also invoked the Disaster Management Act to ensure price regulation and availability of surgical and protective masks, hand sanitisers and gloves.
Railways shutting down
भारतीय रेल कभी युद्धकाल में भी नहीं रुकीकृपया परिस्थितियों की गम्भीरता समझिएघर में ही रहिये।— Ministry of Railways (@RailMinIndia) March 23, 2020
The Indian Railway suspended operations two days before the government announced the first lockdown. For the following three months, there were no trains except the special trains run from June 1, 2020. On March 24, when the lockdown was imposed, Indian Railways tweeted in Hindi: “Indian Railways never stopped even during war… please understand the gravity of the situation… Stay at home.”
On March 22, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a 14-hour curfew for everyone barring essential service providers. At 5 pm, citizens were told to stand at their doors, windows and balconies and clap, or bang thalis or ring bells in appreciation of essential service workers.
The migrant exodus: Rotis on a railway track
The dead migrants left behind these well-rounded fresh looking rotis on the railway track, for the vultures of this world This world has no mercy upon the poor, their good days isn’t around the corner it seems #MigrantLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/QnOTFE9f5A
— HennurBlr (@HennurBlr) May 8, 2020
Between Badnapur and Karmad stations, the rotis scattered on the tracks became a symbol for the immense tragedy that unfolded in the wake of the pandemic: the migrant exodus. They were part of the food stock possessed by migrant workers travelling from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh on foot- 16 of them, mowed down by a battering goods train early in the morning of May 8, 2020.
Flouting of Covid norms
Pics from #Manali, where beds are running out in hotels. If we go on like this, soon there will be another episode of “No beds in Hospital” will hit the reality soon!I know it’s hard not to go out and all, but people this pandemic is a real nightmare. Please be responsible ♀️ pic.twitter.com/174HoHG48F
— (@suchisoundlover) July 4, 2021
From politicians to vacationers, Covid-19 norms were repeatedly flouted. While some came away with minor fines, some, who had been forced to tiptoe around it for livelihood, paid with their blood.
On June 19, 2020, P Jayaraj, 60, and J Bennix, 31, were arrested by the Thoothukudi police for keeping their mobile store open after permitted hours. Relatives claimed that Jayaraj, who was in the store, was picked up by police and verbally abused and assaulted. His son, Bennix, had later gone to the police station to plead with the police to release his father. The duo was allegedly thrashed and a case was filed against them under IPC Sections 188, 383 and 506(II). They were later taken to the Kovilpatti sub-jail. Both died at a hospital in Kovilpatti on June 23 hours apart, with relatives alleging they were severely thrashed at Sathankulam police station.
In July 2021, Indian tourists flocked back to Manali.
Corpses in the Ganga, Yamuna
Bodies of probable COVID-19 patients were fished out of the Ganga and Yamuna in May 2021. Corpses were found floating near the Ujiyar, Kulhadia and Bharauli ghats in the Narahi area of Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar, bodies were fished out from the Ganges in Buxar district. A video of bodies found buried in shallow pits near the banks of the Ganga in Unnao had also gone viral. The viral video showed dogs nibbling on the corpses. A state government provided, in a letter seen by Reuters, the first official acknowledgement of the alarming practice, adding that it may have stemmed from poverty and fear of the disease in villages.
A mental health crisis
The lockdown brought with it a spiralling mental health crisis, the effects of which persist in full force till now. As per a PTI report from August 2020, at that time, a mental health study done on over 8,000 individuals found that college students were the most affected by the pandemic and the lockdown. Conducted by YourDost, an online mental health platform, the study found that the second worst-affected segment of people was working professionals. They were not affected at the beginning of lockdown, but were severely hit with a drastic deterioration in feelings of anxiety, anger and loneliness.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe…
The return of the birds and the mountains
Low pollution due to Coronavirus lockdown leads to Himalayas being visible from my sister’s terrace in Jalandhar, Punjab. Never before have they seen this view from home. Truly amazed! pic.twitter.com/kIseTDzzYM— Saumya Sharma (@saumya__ias) April 3, 2020
While humans are locked inside, flamingos are putting in quite a spectacular show for the residents of Seawoods Complex in Nerul, Navi Mumbai ! pic.twitter.com/wYyIxo92Ch— Harsh Goenka (@hvgoenka) April 16, 2020
Ramayana on TV
One of the impacts of watching too much of Ramayana and Mahabharata during Lockdown is that my 5yr old nephew throws things around and shouts “Aakraman” #LockdownDiaries— Payal M/પાયલ મેહતા/ पायल मेहता/ পাযেল মেহতা (@payalmehta100) May 13, 2020
Ever since the state-owned DD National decided to re-telecast Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan on TV following the ilockdown announcement on March 24, the show garnered record viewership. As per recent TRP ratings, Ramayana garnered 15.5 points in the following few weeks, breaking all previous records. The number was staggering as even the most popular and highest-watched shows tend to garner a TRP of just 4-5 points on average.
Hope, and then some…
India began administering its first doses of the vaccine against Covid-19 from January 2021. As of March 23, 2022, India’s vaccination coverage has crossed the 182 crore mark.
Could there have been beauty in the mayhem- do we abandon art in the times of war or pandemic? Poets will tell you we do not, but that art transforms into something that responds to tragedy, or to the tragedy of which you respond. The human spirit is said to be resilient, but perhaps in a very physical world, it could not amount to much without a body.
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