Indian Chill in the Age of Corona

On Monday, India told residents to “prepare, but do not panic.” Right now, however, it looks like Indians are doing neither.

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A commuter wearing a facemask while traveling on the Delhi Metro, on March 12, 2020. (Photo by XAVIER GALIANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Erin Blair


March 17, 2020


8 min

Street children are begging for hand sanitizer. Elected officials are telling constituents to spray their homes with cow piss. Aunties are arming themselves with haldi and millennials with memes. India’s fake news circuits are doing their stuff, pumping out rumors that the pandemic was caused by Pakistan and bat soup. Astrologists are blaming the shadow entity Rahu, liberals are blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a WhatsApp forward going around promises that if you eat enough arsenic, you’ll be just fine. 

It’s been six weeks since the first case of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was reported in India, and the streets of Mumbai are silent. No firecrackers, no honking: this is the first abnormal day. The major metropolises of India are finally practicing social distancing — all schools, colleges, and movie theaters have been shut down for the rest of March. But what does social distancing look like in a country with no space?

Currently, India has 142 reported cases of coronavirus (this number went up by at least 40 within 24 hours), with two mortalities. But with sparse testing and distrust of institutions, there’s wide speculation that these numbers are artificially low — the World Health Organization, for example, reported only 114 confirmed Indian cases. The government is claiming that most cases are coming from abroad but the spread is now likely domestic. Isolation for most is impossible: only 15% of Indians have a room to themselves. 

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