MUMBAI: Indian police has barricaded parts of one of Asia’s biggest slums after two coronavirus deaths, as under-pressure Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to dispel “darkness and uncertainty” with a national light show.
India so far has largely escaped the pandemic with 2,300 infections and 56 deaths, according to official figures, but two fatalities and a third infection in the Dharavi neighbourhood of Mumbai have set alarm bells ringing.
Authorities have set up eight “containment zones” in the area, home to as many as a million people living and working in cramped tin-roofed shanties, flats and small factories – made famous by the 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire”.
“We have home-quarantined people from these buildings and cordoned off the area so people can’t enter them, and enforced social distancing,” Vijay Khabale-Patil, spokesman of Mumbai’s city authority, said.
“We sprayed hydrochloric acid to disinfect these buildings and nearby areas as well… People from Dharavi are following the rules and keeping themselves and their kids inside homes.”
Police were not letting anyone in or out of the cordoned areas from last Friday, April 3.
The first death from coronavirus in Dharavi, last Wednesday, was a 56-year-old man with no travel history or contact with anyone known to be infected, although he previously had a renal complaint, officials said.
The second fatality – a 51-year-old sanitation worker living in a different area of Mumbai, but who worked in Dharavi – died in hospital on Thursday.
The third case is a doctor who lived and worked in the neighbourhood, who on Friday was receiving treatment.
Social distancing and isolation nearly impossible
Experts say the coronavirus could spread like wildfire in slums where social distancing and self-isolation are all but impossible.
Dharavi’s population density is thought to be 270,000 per square kilometre, according to the World Economic Forum.
Resident Mobinuddin Shaikh, 51, whose home is opposite from where one of the patients lived, said people had been largely ignoring India’s 21-day lockdown imposed on March 25, but they were now panicking.
“We are a family of five,” he said by phone. “We use communal toilets or have to get water from public taps. Only God can save us”, he added.
The imposition of the nationwide lockdown on India’s 1.3 billion people has meanwhile been far from smooth.
Tens of millions of migrant workers were suddenly left jobless when the economy ground to a halt. Around half a million are thought to have attempted to travel back to their home villages, many on foot.
Some were crammed onto government buses and relief camps with little regard to infection risks.
Shortage of protective equipment, testing rates low
Police have been criticised for using heavy-handed tactics to enforce the lockdown, including by the UN rights office. Footage shared online of a group of migrants being hosed down with chemicals provoked outrage.
There have been local media reports of considerable disruption to the transport of food.
Farmers are worried they will be unable to harvest their crops because of a lack of manpower.
Healthcare workers have complained of shortages and poor quality of protective equipment.
Testing rates are low compared to many other countries, raising doubts about the official numbers infected.
The authorities have appealed to employers to pay wages and landlords not to evict people. The Delhi city government alone is feeding around 400,000 people.
“In spite of all these significant efforts, more needs to be done as the human tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes,” UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Thursday.
On Friday, Modi called on Indians to hold candles and mobile phones aloft on their balconies for nine minutes on Sunday at 9pm.
“Friends, amidst the darkness spread by the corona pandemic, we must continuously progress towards light and hope,” Modi said in an address to the nation.
“We must defeat the deep darkness of the crisis, by spreading the glory of light in all four directions.”