'With cases on a rise, lockdown seemed like a better option': Indians living in Europe tell tales of living through coronavirus shutdown
“Everything seemed distant till February,' and one assumed that the coronavirus was not going to spread, but in March things got ugly in Italy, says an Indian student recounting the days before lockdown in Europe
Editor's Note: Thousands of Indians are stranded in foreign lands across the world, some by choice, others due to geopolitical, financial and academic constraints. In this multi-part series, Firstpost takes a look at how they are managing through the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic
Suhail Rashid Bhat (26), a Kashmiri student pursuing LLM at the SOAS University in London, chose to stay back in the United Kingdom as being there would allow him access to faster internet connection.
His hometown Sri Nagar in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been managing the coronavirus pandemic with a 2G internet connection.
We ask Bhat how is he managing the ongoing lockdown due to COVID-19 away from home.
“I am used to lockdowns and that helps in a different way," he says.
"It is sad but it comes in handy. I have been raised as a child of conflict. I am a person of privilege even though I earned that privilege in tough times. So, I have learned a lot of coping mechanisms to take care of myself," he adds.
COVID-19 has reached the stage of community transmission (where one is unable to locate the source of the infection and the vectors do not have a history of travel to infected nations) in several countries with varied degrees of lockdown as a response.
Though some nations are still not in favour of suddenly halting everything, and don't believe that the lockdown is going to help the fight against the coronavirus in the long run, there are countries like the UK, Italy, France and Spain where nationwide lockdowns have been ordered. How effective have imposing restrictions been in such places, and were the measures leading up to the lockdown laid out smoothly?
The desire to be surrounded by the familiar during a crisis is commonplace. However, making the decision of coming back to India has not been without complexities for many Indians. While some decided to not travel back to India fearing exposing their family to the virus, especially, their old parents, others could not come back to India because of geopolitical, financial and academic constraints.
Indian writer Janice Pariat was stranded in Rome in March because of immediate travel restrictions put in place by the Indian embassy. People were not allowed to fly to India from Italy and South Korea unless they had a health certificate in their name stating that they were COVID-19 negative.
The situation was tricky because the Italian healthcare system was already overwhelmed to fulfil this need, and the Indian embassy did not relay assuring details about when the stranded people could travel out of Italy.
Pariat could finally reach Delhi by taking a flight from Rome to Berlin to Helsinki and then finally to Delhi.
For 28-year-old Visvak, an MA student at SOAS University in London, however, the decision was guided by whether or not his scholarship would remain available if he left London.
“I decided to stay back in London because I live in a dorm, which I have to pay for the whole year even if I leave. And there was some uncertainty about whether my (Chevening) scholarship, which I rely on to pay the rent, would continue to fund me if I left London," he says.
Visvak informs that other students who don’t have scholarships are in an even worse position in the UK.
"Some rely on part-time jobs to cover rent, which don’t exist anymore, and some who have already left, still owe rent. We are currently engaging in a rent strike arguing that our situation must be considered under exceptional circumstances. The Student’s Union is attempting to negotiate with the accommodation providers but they are not listening at the moment,” he adds.
Twenty-five-year-old Jo, who is based in London and pursuing PhD at SOAS, shared that many students in the UK do not have a steady income.
“Students need a UK-based guarantor who signs contract with the landlord stating that he/she will pay the rent in case we, the students, fail to pay it. But my landlord has been very understanding and understands that the guarantor might not be able to provide pay slips as proof for guarantor checks.”
Thinking about going back home, Ramya Maddali, 27, an English language assistant in Orléans, France, had concerns about contracting the virus at the airport.
"I wasn’t planning on coming back because I had no intention of spending nearly Rs 30,000 on a flight ticket when I had already bought one for mid-May. Moreover, I read horror stories about less than sanitary quarantine conditions at the Delhi airport (where I would land) and we (my Indian friends and I) decided collectively that we were better off waiting it out in France. Moreover, the French government has been thoughtful enough to extending our visas for three months at no extra cost.”
Maddali is also worried about one of her friends (a non-French resident), who is living as a guest with a French family.
“They are putting pressure on her to leave even though the borders to her country of origin are closed," she informs.
With the lockdown in place, it would be difficult to move or shift to another place.
Following the lockdown, most stores in major towns and cities faced an abrupt increase in demand of essentials like eggs, milk and meat. People horded toilet papers and hand sanitisers. Amidst an ongoing lockdown and while practising self-isolation, coping with panic-buying and limited supplies have been a challenge.
“Supermarkets were not able to keep up with the demand when the restrictions were initially announced and shelves were empty for a while," says Visvak.
"But that issue has largely been resolved now. I have also been lucky because some of my flatmates left behind some essentials before leaving for home that I could use,” he adds.
Maddali said that since she lives with a group of friends in a hostel. They prepare a weekly or bi-weekly list and one person from the group gets the groceries for the rest on an alternate basis.
Himanshi Nagpal (25) who lives in Gottingen, Germany, said that the stores around her are well-stocked.
“I live in a small town so the stores here are well-stocked even though there was a shortage of food and toilet paper in between. Public transport is going on but there is not much crowd,” she informs.
Nagpal is a Master’s student in Modern Indian Studies at the University of Gottingen.
COVID-19 did not announce its arrival before hitting the world hard and the nonchalance of some world leaders did not help curbing its spread. This unpreparedness translated into people struggling with the seriousness of the extent of this disease.
Kaushika (23), a student of Sciences Po, a research institute in Paris, France, said that “everything seemed distant till February" and one assumed that the disease was not going to spread, but in March things got ugly in Italy.
"Then the semester classes were shifted online. People in France started getting infected. Even after the online courses started, we did not realise how serious and bad it was going to get. Then the prime minister said there will be a lockdown – on 17 March – and within a few days, the numbers started rising like they were rising in Italy. Doctors are now working to the point of exhaustion. I saw a video of military trucks being used to carry the bodies of the dead because no other vehicles had the capacity. We have realised the lockdown is a better precaution,” she says.
Abhijit Banare (27), an MPhil student of Public Policy at University of Cambridge shared that if the local police found a congregation of more than two people, they would be fined.
“Earlier the government was not clear on the employment front, so people tend to leave for work. But a few days ago, the government released a statement strictly urging people to work from home unless it was impossible for them to do so. Public transport has been running on reduced service. National Express, the main bus service across the UK has been indefinitely suspended,” says Banare.
Samanvay (27), a PhD student in Paris said that France is under strict lockdown, and people are permitted to leave their houses only for essential jobs, supplies, medical reasons, essential legal/administrative reasons and physical exercise in a one-kilometre radius.
"People are generally following the rules quite strictly as the fine for leaving the house without good reason and without carrying a signed piece of paper, printed or handwritten, is high – from €135 up to €375. More than three violations in the space of 30 days are subject to six months’ imprisonment or community service and fine. This is all quite strongly enforced at least in the big cities which are the pockets of high population density."
Samanvay says that about 100,000 police and gendarmes have been mobilised for this across the country. He also informs that horror stories from across the border in Italy are widely shared and read, and has "certainly influenced the public's understanding of the crisis".
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