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Mohamed Nass - Cairo - NEW DELHI (AP) — The government order on the night of March 24, 2020, was abrupt but clear: In four hours, India and its 1.4 billion people would be locked down entirely because of the coronavirus.
As the clock struck midnight, the world’s second-most populous country came to a screeching halt, isolating everyone in their homes.
In the days that followed, millions lost their jobs, devastating the economy. The already-struggling health care system was strained even further. Social inequalities came to the fore, pushing millions more into poverty.
India’s lockdown, among the strictest anywhere, lasted for 68 days, and some form of it remained in force for months before it eventually was lifted. Since the pandemic began, India has had 11.6 million cases and more than 160,000 people have died.
A year after the lockdown, its ripples are still visible. Some people shrugged it off and managed to get back to normal. For many others, though, their lives were changed greatly.
First, Neelesh Deepak watched his food dwindle. Then the actor couldn’t pay the rent on his New Delhi apartment. Out of money, he returned to his parents’ home in Madhubani, a village in eastern Bihar state.
There, he tried to cope with his isolation from work, colleagues and friends. When he returned to the Indian capital in October, things had changed for the worse. Most theaters were closed, and those that tried to stage plays struggled to lure the public back. Shows were suspended indefinitely and thousands of coworkers had no jobs.
Without work amid the pandemic, the 40-year-old soon began to experience anxiety. When a friend took her own life, Deepak began seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication. He began to reckon with the heartbreaking realization that he faced a painful struggle to make a living outside of the theater.
That continued for months until he joined a nonprofit group as a researcher. His income plummeted from between $500 to $600 a month to a little more than $150. He struggles just to buy food.
“My family is barely surviving,” he said. “The fear of the lockdown hasn’t left me. I don’t think it will leave me anytime soon.”
THE MIGRANT WORKERS
When 50-year-old Nirbhay Yadav and his 25-year-old son suddenly found themselves without work because of the lockdown, they became part of the biggest migration in India’s modern history: 10 million people began leaving the big cities for the countryside.
Fearing starvation, Yadav and his son left New Delhi for Banda, a village in central Uttar Pradesh state. They walked for 600 kilometers (372 miles) in the scorching sun along highways in an exhausting, harrowing journey.
When they finally reached Banda with blistered feet, villagers didn’t allow them to enter because of fears of catching the virus. The father and son were forced into a 14-day quarantine.
But many who fled the cities didn’t make it — with some killed in accidents and others dying of exhaustion, dehydration or hunger.
“I pray to God that he never shows such days again,” Yadav said.
Over the next few months, the lockdown hollowed out Yadav’s entire savings, forcing him to delay the weddings of his two daughters he had planned for years. It left him heartbroken.
Local nonprofit groups provided some food but that soon ran out. The state government announced it would provide the equivalent of $13.80 per month to every family of migrant workers for half a year, but Yadav never received it.
After 11 months, he returned to New Delhi, where things were no better. Now he cannot find work even for one day. He is eating less and sleeps under a highway overpass.
“I have never seen something like this before,” he said. “I think I will never come back to this city.”
THE HEALTH CARE WORKER
Kavita Sherawat, who administered coronavirus tests to patients, dutifully wore masks and always washed her hands.
Still, the 30-year-old health care worker got infected, as did her husband, parents and in-laws. Only her 4-year-old son avoided it. But that’s because she kept herself from seeing him in person for many weeks.
“I couldn’t even feed my son during those months,” she said. “It pained me.”
She thought of quitting her job, believing she was neglecting her parental duties. But she stayed at it, even as others in her family kept their distance from her.
While doctors and nurses were cheered as heroes during the lockdown, people avoided her, fearing infection. She tested thousands of sick and gasping people at hospitals, not knowing if she was adequately protected.
“That fear changes you as a person. You start valuing your life more,” she said. “Those early days still scare me.”
THE TRANSGENDER MODEL
Tashi Singh called it the toughest decision she had made in her life. And she chose the lockdown to do it.
For years, the 21-year-old said, she had known she was “a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
She wanted to tell her parents she was a woman, how she loved to wear makeup and how she had always aspired to become a model.
But Singh said she never had the courage. Until the lockdown.
When she told them, they were unsupportive and hostile. It wasn’t long before she found herself caught in a spiral of abuse.
“I wanted to run away, but where would have I gone? The entire country was shut,” she said.
The abuse at home led to new struggles. She was locked in her room for days. Her father shaved her head. When she once managed to escape, he found her and beat her in front of the neighbors, she said.
Days later, she succeeded in running away but struggled to find a place to live or make a living. There were no jobs for a trans model. Getting access to sex hormone drugs was difficult.
“The lockdown made me realize how to live life,” she said from an apartment she shares with six other trans women. “But I guess it was also a blessing in disguise.”
Image: Health worker Kavita Sherawat, 30, wears a face mask as she prepares to take samples to test for COVID-19 in New Delhi, India, Thursday, March 18, 2021. Despite dutifully wearing masks and always washing her hands, Sherawat got infected, as did her husband, parents and in-laws. While doctors and nurses were cheered as heroes during the lockdown, people avoided her, fearing infection. She tested thousands of sick and gasping people as they arrived at hospitals, not knowing if the gear she wore was adequately protecting her. “That fear changes you as a person. You start valuing your life more,” she said. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
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