Observations From Lockdown in India
The first day that I heard the term social distancing, I walked barefoot for five hours around a sacred mountain with tens of thousands of Indian pilgrims, packed densely enough to warrant consistent bump-ins throughout the entirety of the route’s 14 kilometers.
Together, we traveled across the tree-lined pavement, avoiding traffic, sharp bits of litter, and cow dung. We chanted Om Namah Shivaya to Arunachala, the geographic center of our circumambulation, stoked fires with camphor, and ate rice offerings from large pots off the streets with our hands.
At that point, foreigners and Indians alike had known about the virus for a long time. In fact, for a while, we bonded over it. A local man would cough, another would yell “Coronavirus!” and everyone would laugh, or someone on the street would ask me (because I’m a foreigner), “Why don’t you wear a mask?” (His punch line was that the stores didn’t sell them.)
As confirmed cases started to surface throughout the country, authorities hung up signs about hand-washing at one of the town’s main hubs, Sri Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. The diagrams seemed familiar from the Western world, but instead of recommending that we sing the alphabet or “Happy Birthday” along with the scrub, they advised chanting the Maha Mrityunjaya (“the great death-conquering”) mantra.
In theory, this was a beautiful combination of practicality and intention.
However, there was no soap offered near the water taps beneath the signs — similar to the majority of public institutions and private businesses here.
Despite a general lack of both awareness and hand sanitizer, it seemed like India was actually trying to prevent the virus from taking over — and in a good position to do so, since it arrived relatively late to corona’s global gathering. India was early in withholding visas and closing land borders. Preventative reminders around town included altering cultural norms: reminding people to cover faces when coughing or sneezing and to refrain from spitting in public. Every phone call for the past month has begun with a one-minute delay — a violent coughing prelude to a public health announcement.