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“Chaotic Situation”: India Begins Lockdown of 1.3 Billion Residents as Coronavirus Pandemic Spreads

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As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, we look at India, which is now under the largest lockdown in human history, with 1.3 billion people ordered to shelter in place. As the country’s economy and daily life come to an abrupt halt, hundreds of millions of Indians who live hand to mouth have been left without the means to support their families. We speak with Amitav Ghosh, whose books include “Gun Island” and “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman in the studio, with Nermeen Shaikh in self-isolation in New York City. We’re turning to India now, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the largest lockdown in human history starting Wednesday, telling the country’s 1.3 billion people to shelter in place. With 693 confirmed coronavirus cases and 13 dead, India’s three-week lockdown is an attempt to stave off the skyrocketing death tolls and overwhelmed health systems already seen in China, Italy, Spain and now the United States.

But as the country’s economy and daily life comes to an abrupt halt, hundreds of millions of Indians who live hand to mouth have been left without the means to support their families. More than 80% of India’s workforce is informal, with most living off daily wages often less than $2 or $3 a day, wages they cannot earn under the present curfew. Some states, including Uttar Pradesh and Kerala, have announced economic relief packages for workers and the poor, and Modi’s government is expected to do the same in the coming days. But critics say Modi’s response to the coronavirus crisis has left India’s poor to fend for themselves, with migrant workers left stranded at now-closed train and bus stations with no way to get home, and millions wondering how they’ll survive weeks and potentially months without work.

Meanwhile, India’s testing lags far behind other nations, leading to fears the actual number of COVID-19 infections is far, far higher than reported. As of Tuesday, India had conducted only 15,000 tests — 15,000 in a nation of 1.3 billion.

Well, for more, we’re joined by the award-winning Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, joining us from his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he is sheltering in place. His books include Gun Island and The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

Thanks so much for being with us. Let’s start with what’s happening in India. Let’s talk about this largest lockdown in human history. What do you understand is going on, Amitav?

AMITAV GHOSH: Well, it seems to be a very chaotic situation. You know, let me say, first of all, that one of the terrible things about this lockdown is that it should have happened a lot earlier. I mean, I’ve been self-isolating here in Brooklyn for almost three weeks now. And I talk to my friends and my family every day back in India. And really, for three weeks, they were just not taking this seriously at all. And those signals have to come from the government. For example, Floyd Cardoz, I’m told — you know, he was a friend of mine. I’m really devastated to hear about his passing. But I’m told he had a huge party in Bombay earlier this month. And, you know, if they had shut down these sort of big gatherings and so on two to three weeks ago, it would have served an enormous purpose, but they didn’t.

And so, this lockdown has come as a huge surprise. My family back in Calcutta, they’re completely panicked because they didn’t have time to go out and buy food or anything. And, you know, I’m just talking about my family. As for the 80% of India’s employment is in the informal sector, and those people are just completely devastated. You saw the picture of people being beaten by the police. A lot of informal workers are now out on the streets. They lived on the streets anyway. They have no way to get back to their homes, which are maybe hundreds of miles away. They’re just stuck on the street. Yesterday I saw a horrifying video of a young boy being beaten by the police. And he was just out on the street because there was nowhere — he had nowhere to go. You see these pictures of workers carrying their children on their heads, trying to walk back hundreds of miles to their families. It’s just a shocking situation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Amitav Ghosh, what do you expect will happen now? What are you learning from your family? Because at the moment, this lockdown is supposed to last for three weeks. What are you hearing, though, about how long it’s likely to continue beyond that? And also, what provisions the Modi government has put in place, if any, for people under curfew to get access to even basic goods — food, drinking water, etc.?

AMITAV GHOSH: Well, the government has announced some sorts of relief measures, and it varies from state to state in India. So, Kerala has actually been very proactive, and they’ve acted very early amongst Indian states. How effective these measures will be, I just don’t know. You know, even delivery workers are being beaten by the police. It just makes absolutely no sense. Journalists trying to get to work are being beaten by the police. Healthcare workers are being beaten. So, you know, as far as I can see, it’s kind of this strange situation of chaos and panic building upon each other.

So, you know, middle-class families like mine are able to stockpile a certain amount of food at home. But you think of the people who are stuck in tiny shanties, who have really not the ability to even stockpile any food. And the weather is turning hotter and hotter. They’re stuck inside. It’s just going to be appalling for them.

And let me say straightaway that the reported numbers, we just cannot trust at all. We know now that really the numbers reported are a function of the testing. And as Amy said earlier, very few Indians have been tested. What? It’s like 15,000 in a huge country? So, I mean, again, another statistic that is not at all trustworthy is the number of people who are dying, because a very large number of deaths in India are not actually reported, or they’re not certified by doctors. So we really have no idea at all of what’s going on on the ground.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Amitav, could you elaborate a little bit more? You’ve suggested here the extraordinary inequality in the effects and spread of this virus — of course, here in the United States, but perhaps with different orders of magnitude in countries like India with such a large population that is poor — who this virus is likely to impact the most, and the relationship between these decades of — which you’ve pointed out — decades of neoliberalism and the populations that are going to be the most affected by this, in India as well as here.

AMITAV GHOSH: Well, you know, the sort of neoliberal sorts of policies that we’ve seen around the world have had the effect of greatly increasing inequality, you know? So, you see this terrible sort of cycle. I mean, a lot of the informal workers in Delhi are actually farmers from areas that have been very badly hit by climate change. In 2016, for example, there was a terrible drought in central India. Hundreds of thousands of people were leaving their villages every single day and flocking into cities like Delhi, where they lived under flyovers. So, what are those people going to do in this circumstance? How can they even return?

Again, you know, obviously, I mean, people live in very close contact in slums, in shantytowns. It’s going to spread very, very fast over there. Those people are not going to be able to get themselves tested. They’re not going to be able to go to hospitals. In any case, at this point in time, I suspect hospitals are going to be the prime center for the transmission of this disease. You know, we are seeing that around the world. There’s no reason to believe that that won’t be the case in India. So, yes, you know, just take one example. I mean, during this last week, as the panic was beginning to spread in India, migrant workers started piling into trains in thousands. You can imagine in a small train compartment how quickly this will spread.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could comment, Amitav Ghosh, on President Trump going to India right at the time that people were saying he had to be speaking about coronavirus, not only there, but dealing with what’s happening in the United States, as well, but instead he was there at a stadium being celebrated, not saying any word, when it could have made such an enormous difference? And also talk more about — I mean, your book is titled The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, very appropriate for what’s happening right now. But if you could talk more deeply about the connection between climate change and the growth of these viruses, the spread of these viruses, and what we haven’t taken seriously until this point?

AMITAV GHOSH: Well, yes, you’re right. I mean, just a few weeks ago, President Trump was in India with the prime minister, Narendra Modi. They were in a huge stadium with tens of thousands of people. I think it was hundreds of thousands, actually. And, you know, you can just sense that this is a huge incubator of the disease. You know, even a couple weeks ago, there were massive cricket matches going on across India. It was just a spectacle of derangement. You know, my book is called The Great Derangement, and every single day I see more and more signs of this kind of derangement.

So, you know, the relationship with climate change, well, as far as I can tell, obviously, one direct relationship is rising temperatures will create — will make the transmission of certain kinds of diseases easier in certain places. But I think we can’t think of it only in terms of a causal relationship. I think these things — this pandemic, the global migration crisis, so many other things — are actually all effects of this great acceleration that we’ve been seeing for the last 30 years, starting in about 1990, since we’ve had this sort of neoliberal regime, economic regime, put in place across the world. Half of all of the greenhouse gas emissions that are in the skies right now come since 1990. So, it’s exactly in this period that we’ve witnessed this incredible acceleration in travel, in mobility, all the things that make it possible for a pandemic like this to instantly, as it were, spread itself around the world.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Amitav, can you speak specifically, on the question of this great acceleration, to the Modi government’s policies specifically? I mean, a lot of people have criticized the Modi government for the way in which it imposed this curfew, and compared it to his decision to demonetize the currency a couple of years ago. So, could you talk about the impact of the Modi government’s policies both on the question of inequality and the impact on the climate crisis of some of the policies that the Modi government has pursued?

AMITAV GHOSH: See, the lockdown announcement was made at 8 p.m. at night, and the demonetization announcement was also made in a similar way. And the demonetization announcement created absolute panic that lasted for a long time, disrupted lives and really rendered the informal sector very, very vulnerable. They still have not recovered from that. So, when this — when it was announced that the prime minister is going to make another sort of major announcement, already that created a kind of incredible panic. And apart from that, you know, the last few months in India have been incredibly difficult. I mean, the government also announced a set of changes in citizenship laws, which has completely divided the country and created upheavals across the country. This couldn’t in fact have happened at a worse moment. So, you know, it’s going to create a lot of uncertainty, a lot of panic going ahead. I don’t think anyone can really foresee what lies ahead in the next few weeks, because I feel absolutely sure that three weeks is not enough. It’s going to be much more than that. You know, we are just seeing the beginnings of this pandemic in India.

So, the Modi government’s policies from the start have been very anti-environmental. They’ve diluted the Forest Rights Act, which protected the rights of many forest-dwelling indigenous peoples. They’ve even diluted things like — you know, in India, we had strict regulations about building close to the sea, to the coast. You know, there were strict regulations about leaving a certain amount of land that you couldn’t build on. So, obviously, hotels, resorts, all those sorts of lobbies, they wanted that changed, and they were able to push through a change. You just think about this moment in time with sea level rise, and you’re suddenly allowed to build closer and closer to the sea. It’s a kind of madness. And, you know, especially the devastation that is happening in India’s forests, forests being opened up to mining interests across India, all of this is going to create absolute disaster, because we can see that it’s that kind of ecological destruction, it’s deforestation, that creates the conditions for these animal-to-human transmissions of viruses.

AMY GOODMAN: Amitav Ghosh, we’re going to have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us, India writer based in Brooklyn, where he’s self-isolating, author of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

And that does it for the show. We cannot end this broadcast without a moment of joy. And that joy is that it’s Nermeen Shaikh’s birthday.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh gosh.

AMY GOODMAN: Nermeen, a very, very Happy Birthday! I wish you were right here at my side so you could blow out this candle with me.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: But you are so important in this broadcast and represent such an important ray of hope, as do all our colleagues here at Democracy Now!, both at the studio and self-isolating but working so hard at home. Happy Birthday, Nermeen!

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Happy, Happy Birthday, dear Nermeen! Democracy Now! is brought to you by a remarkably dedicated group of passionate producers, videographers. I’m Amy Goodman, from New York City. Thanks so much.

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