In one of the world’s largest slums, the fight against the coronavirus has turned into a struggle to survive

Lalita Shedge, 45, with one of her two sons in their home in Dharavi in May, 2020. (Washington Post photo by Parth M.N.)

They did the best they could – a family of seven crammed into a single room in one of Asia’s largest slums – but a month after India imposed a nationwide lockdown, the money ran out.

Ejaz Ahmed Chowdhary turned to his 11-year-old nephew and opened the red plastic box that contained the boy’s childhood savings: $10. It would buy food for another week. After that, there would be nothing.

Chowdhary’s tiny phone repair shop had been closed for weeks. He was ashamed of needing help but was gripped by fear, both of the future and of the disease stalking the city of Mumbai.

Before the coronavirus, “our life was limited and small, but it was good,” he said. “Now everything is ruined.”

Chowdhary is one of hundreds of millions of Indians left without a safety net as the nation confronts a once-in-a-century pandemic. The struggle to stop the virus has put countries like India in an impossible predicament: The same measures that public health experts say are necessary to save lives also risk endangering millions of others.

India’s nationwide lockdown, instituted March 25, was one of the strictest in the world. It is set to last until at least May 17. Some restrictions on commerce and movement have been eased in recent weeks, and the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infection is rising rapidly, with more than 67,000 across the country.

Ejaz Ahmed Chowdhary, 40, with two of his nephews near his home in Dharavi, Mumbai, in May, 2020. (Washington Post photo by Parth M.N.)

The battle against the virus in India will be won or lost in places like Dharavi, the triangle-shaped Mumbai slum where Chowdhary lives.

Dharavi’s one square mile – about three-quarters the size of New York’s Central Park – is home to nearly a million people, making social distancing a fantasy. It is also a place where the quest to save lives is pitted directly against the need to make a living.

India’s lockdown has caused unemployment on a massive scale: More than 100 million people have lost jobs or left the labor force, according to an analysis by economists at Goldman Sachs, and the unemployment rate has shot up to 27%.

India’s vast informal workforce “has no safety net, not even the bare minimum,” said Radhicka Kapoor, a senior fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in Delhi. Nine in 10 workers have no job protections, unemployment benefits or health insurance, Kapoor said, leaving them “very, very vulnerable.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acknowledged the “immense suffering” caused by the lockdown and introduced an economic package including some free food supplies for poor families and a small direct cash transfer. But such measures barely address the need. They amount to less than 1% of India’s gross domestic product. (By comparison, the stimulus package in the United States is equivalent to about 11 percent of GDP.)

State and local governments, together with a small army of nonprofit organizations, have tried to address immediate needs such as for food and shelter. In Dharavi, city officials are providing cooked meals twice a day for nearly 20,000 people, and civic groups also are working to help those who have lost their livelihoods.

Lalita Shedge works cleaning houses and lives with her two sons near the eastern edge of Dharavi. All three of them are now out of work. Shedge said her ability to provide for her family has never felt so precarious, not even in the dark days after her husband died in an accident in 2003. “It’s up to God to save us,” she said.

Chowdhary, too, is acutely vulnerable. He is the sole breadwinner for his elderly parents, both diabetic, along with his three sisters, two of them widows, and his 11-year-old nephew. People living nearby received some food supplies from nonprofit organizations, he said, but not his family. In April, a person in his narrow lane tested positive for the novel coronavirus. City officials erected temporary barricades in the area to keep people out.

The virus continues to spread here. More than 850 confirmed cases have been recorded in the slum, along with 29 deaths. Municipal officials have sealed off parts of the area, creating quarantine zones affecting at least 125,000 people. Overall, Mumbai has more than 13,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, making it the worst-hit city in India.

Made globally famous by the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” the real-life Dharavi is a teeming hub of small-scale industry. Families and workers pack into tiny one-room shacks along snaking lanes barely wide enough for two people. Toilets are communal, and water is scarce.

Laxmi Ramchandra Kamble, 40, fills food packets to distribute as part of relief efforts in Dharavi in May, 2020. (Washington Post photo by Parth M.N.)

One recent morning, Laxmi Ramchandra Kamble set out on foot to visit the small factories in Dharavi’s 13th Compound, which sits in the northwest corner of the slum. Workers here sort through tons of waste in search of recyclable scraps and toil in workshops sewing goldthread embroidery to ornament fancy clothes. She was looking for people who are going hungry.

Kamble, 40, is a third-generation inhabitant of Dharavi. Her grandmother was a ragpicker, sifting through refuse for reusable material. Her parents run small plastic-recycling businesses. Kamble works for the Acorn Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that normally focuses on communities that work with waste. In these times, however, there is only one mission: relief work.

The workers Kamble was visiting hail from states far to the north and were stranded by the lockdown. Most have a place to sleep, but no job and no money. On this morning, about 225 needed food.

Kamble, a single mother with a determined air, noted the total, and her team returned on motorbikes bearing supplies. For those with the means to cook, they hand out rice and lentils. For others, there are packets of prepared food – spiced vegetables, cooked lentils, chapatis. They come back again in the evening.

The supplies are for the most desperate, Kamble said, but there are always more people than packets, jostling and asking for help. “There is always a feeling of fear,” she said. “We cannot feed them all.”

Everyone is anxious about the future. Those who run the small recycling businesses in the area, like Kamble’s parents, are facing huge losses. They cannot pay their workers’ salaries if they are closed. The situation is far more dire for those at the bottom of the labor ladder, like the ragpickers who earn just 3 cents per piece of plastic they find.

If the restrictions don’t end soon, Kamble said, “I don’t know what will happen to the people of Dharavi.”

In the afternoons, less than a mile away, Shedge, the widowed housekeeper, and her two 20-something sons spend the hot, sticky hours under a single fan, sitting around uneasily watching television.

They live in a room so small in parts that if you spread your arms, you can almost touch the sides. There is a counter for cooking in one corner and a tiny bathing area in another. At night, the three sleep on mats on the floor.

The family relies on a nearby communal toilet, where each visit costs 3 cents. These days Shedge avoids the early morning hours when the crowds are bigger, but even at 10:30 a.m., she sometimes waits in line for half an hour.

Shedge, 45, worked as a housekeeper for three families in an apartment building in Sion, a nearby area about a 10-minute walk away. Seven days a week, she swept and mopped and dusted for $40 per family. The income kept her family afloat.

Since the lockdown began, though, she has been stuck, unable to work. Her employers have dodged her calls and evaded her questions about whether they will pay anything while she is not working.

Both of her sons also lost their jobs. Her older son, 24, was unemployed for six months and had just begun working in an accountant’s office when it closed in the lockdown. Her younger son, 22, did deliveries for a pharmacy but was fired by the owner out of fear: He worried that someone living in Dharavi would ultimately contract the virus.

Shedge, a small woman with square glasses perched on her nose, has stopped paying bills and is down to her last $21. The family is eating mainly rice and lentils, thanks to supplies provided by a local activist. “The main challenge now is food and hunger,” Shedge said. “The rest we can figure out later.” If the lockdown doesn’t lift, she and her sons will start living on one meal a day, she said.

Shedge has worked for one of her employers for more than two decades. Even now, she finds it hard to believe that they have declined to help her. “If they don’t support us, who will?” she asked.

Finding a way to control the virus without letting people fall into destitution is the task of local officials like Kiran Dighavkar, the assistant municipal commissioner in charge of Dharavi and two other nearby areas. Dighavkar is engaged in a race against time, trying to find the virus before it spreads in these tight quarters.

Social distancing is all but impossible in the slum, he notes, where multiple people live together in tiny rooms and residents have no option but to rely on public toilets. The strategy for the area focuses on screening and isolating potential patients. The city formed teams of doctors and volunteers to go door-to-door checking for people with symptoms. More than 100,000 people have been screened, Dighavkar said, and nearly 2,500 have been placed in government-run quarantine facilities. All of Dharavi’s more than 450 public toilets are being disinfected daily.

The days pass by in a blur, Dighavkar said, marked by a constant stream of phone calls – people calling with bad news, people calling for help, people calling to complain. “Sometimes not to think is the best option, only to keep working,” Dighavkar said. He worries that there is no end in sight.

As dusk fell on a recent evening, Chowdhary and his six family members waited to break their daily fast for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Normally a festive season, now it is marked by dread. Streets that were once full of people, even well into the night, are unusually quiet. “I have never seen Dharavi like this before,” he said.

For Chowdhary, the worries multiply with each passing day. There is the remaining balance on the loan he took out to start his mobile phone repair shop. The rent he owes for the shop for the last two months. The monthly medication for his 75-year-old father’s ailing heart. The daily needs of everyone in his one-room home. The deadly virus that continues to spread.

He has forbidden his parents to set foot outside except in rare circumstances, but he sometimes allows them to sit by the door to breathe the outside air, provided they’re wearing masks.

When the family’s funds ran out last week, Chowdhary was forced to ask a close friend to lend him money. “Everyone is in need, so I feel ashamed asking,” he said. Chowdhary handed over the loan – $130 – to his mother. She bought rice, flour and lentils.

In all his four decades, Chowdhary said, he has never felt this helpless. The unseen sickness moving through his community has confined him to his home and taken away his livelihood.

“It’s like my hands and limbs have been cut,” he said. “We have been forced to beg.”

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