NEWS
20/03/2020 9:50 AM IST

Indians Living In Coronavirus-Hit Italy Have A Warning For Their Country

They also have some tips to survive self-quarantine and lockdown

Barcroft Media via Getty Images
DELHI, INDIA, MARCH 19, 2020: A man wearing a hanky as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

The total reported cases of coronavirus infections in India have risen to 195, but the Uttar Pradesh government is still planning to go ahead with plans for a massive Ram Navami gathering in Ayodhya. Meanwhile, public health experts across the world have said that India’s low number of confirmed cases could be a result of under-testing — until now, India has only been testing people with travel history and ones who may have come in contact with a patient.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the country on Thursday and urged people to stay indoors as much as possible and also announced ‘janata curfew’ — an initiative to not step out of homes on Sunday.

However, major issue, underlined by various articles, including this one in The New York Times, is that a sizeable section of privileged, affluent Indians are not self-isolating themselves though they have the means to do so. “I am not scared. I eat, party, sleep,’’ Akshay Gupta, a Lucknow-based accountant told NYT. “The scare is overhyped,” he added.

HuffPost India asked Indians living in self-quarantine in Italy to describe the similarities in India’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic with their experiences in the country, now the worst-hit after China. And they couldn’t stress enough on the need for social distancing ― but who will tell that to the Yogi Adityanath government?

On ignoring social distancing advisory

Rakesh Gundala, a 32-year-old student of business management in Rome, told HuffPost India that in the initial days, when advisories about social distancing and self-quarantining were released by the government, bodies such as WHO and mainstream news organisations, a majority of people did not take it seriously, even when the number of cases reached a few hundred.

“People took a long time to understand the seriousness of the situation. Or the possibility that they could be infected by the coronavirus too, especially if they had not travelled recently,” Gundala said.

He remembers some of his peers being ridiculed for pointing out the escalating numbers of infected people in China. “‘It’s too small to affect us’, they said. Till the number started hitting a few thousands,” he told us.

When Gundala suggested that work-from-home be imposed with immediacy, some of his colleagues said they ‘won’t stay at home at any cost’. “They were still working from offices till very late into the outbreak,” Gundala said.

He suggested that even private small gatherings in India, which tend to have 10-15 people, should be immediately shut down and people who can afford to do so should stop meeting others in big groups, especially in public spaces. “It is for the sake of elders and the poor who cannot afford social distancing and practices that we at least have the privilege to practice,” he said. “If India doesn’t practise social distancing seriously right now, the count will amplify to unimaginable levels. We did not see this coming either,” he said.

On shutting down of public places

Researcher Ghita (who wants to be identified by her first name) told HuffPost India that on 4 March, when the number of confirmed cases in Italy had climbed to 3,000, schools and colleges were ordered to be shut down. Some restaurants closed, but malls, bars and pubs were mostly open. “A lot of people thought they should be taking advantage of the empty bars, pubs and malls, instead of chickening out. A considerable number of people were still seen going to these places,” Ghita said, saying that these should have been shut down much earlier when the number was still at a couple of hundred.

“These crowds, especially callous young people, are partially responsible for endangering the lives of the elderly and the sick, many of whom have died in the country,” Gundala added.

Gundala said the decision to keep the malls open was ‘unwise’ as people kept visiting, taking it as a misleading sign of ‘normalcy’. A similar pattern can be seen in India, where many malls are still open and their employees forced to work, fearing job losses and pay cuts.

Ida Schioppa, a resident of Rome who runs a tourism service, told HuffPost India, while most corporate organisations started cleaning and sanitizing their premises, they did not impose work-from-home directives even in the third week, when the count of infected people had reached 7,000. Gundala added that in India, most big corporate houses and customer care centres are still functioning out of large offices, where footfall of people is difficult to control and sanitization is very difficult. “We have to put health before profits,” Gundala said.

On the callous ‘I won’t get Coronavirus’ crowd

Many young people, Ghita, Gundala and Schioppa, told HuffPost India, were under the impression that ‘they won’t get the virus’. The young may have survived even after getting it, but they endangered older people, especially people in their 60s.

It became so difficult to stop people from stepping out that the Italian government had to introduce fines and the concept of an auto-declaration for people stepping out. “There are police and security personnel patrolling the streets to make sure people are not loitering around. If you step out, you have to sign an auto-declaration saying you have not tested positive for the virus and that you are going out for essential goods—buy grocery, medicines, or for a medical emergency. You are also allowed to walk your dog, but very close to the house,” Gundala said.

Schioppa added that despite the death toll mounting and hospitals choking under pressure, she has seen people on social media and WhatsApp claiming the auto-declaration can be flouted. “Some people lied saying they were going for groceries or medicines, but went to other places and gathered in houses. There are thousands of people now who are strictly practicing social distancing in Italy now, but a small errant handful could still endanger the rest,” she told HuffPost India.

On running back ‘home’ from sites of big outbreaks

When provinces in northern Italy were finally put under lockdown as the infection count kept escalating, a lot of people started fleeing those places and into southern Italy. That, according to Schioppa, exacerbated the situation.

Though the government put restrictions on such people — their families had to go into self-quarantine for at least two weeks and only one member could go out to get supplies — many flouted those restrictions initially as well.

Gundala added that at first, Italy put a village in the Lombardi province under lockdown. He feels the whole province should have been immediately shut down, restricting movement of people. In India, no such protocol is in place yet and could lead to high numbers of community transmission, they suspected.

 Tips to survive a shutdown

“Be clean, don’t touch anything in public with your hands — door knobs, lift buttons, rails. Carry a sanitiser, wash hands regularly, drink more water. If you are wearing gloves or a disposable mask, find a safe way to dispose of them, don’t throw them in the open and endanger cleaners and sanitation workers,” Gundala said. He also suggested jumping into a shower immediately after coming from outside and washing the clothes immediately.

He said he had also learnt some plumbing work online and some DIY fixes for home so that he doesn’t need to call in plumbers, which is anyway now not possible in Italy.