Coronavirus

Social Distancing Is the New Normal, But In Some Asian Countries, It’s Not That Easy

People living in countries across Asia tell us how the battle cry of the pandemic, social distancing, is impossible for them.
19 May 2020, 4:50am
social distancing Asia
Migrant workers and their families line up outside the Anand Vihar Bus Terminal in Delhi to go back to their villages after the Indian government imposed the world's strictest lockdowns to enforce social distancing in India to contain the spread of coronavirus. Unfortunately, the move drove hundreds and thousands of migrants to lose their jobs and homes, thereby violating lockdown rules with no fault of theirs. Photo: Bhuvan Bagga/ AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

Over the last few months, as the world buckles under the crushing impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it has inadvertently imposed several “new normals” on people’s lives. From new health measures to increased surveillance to changing relationships, the new-age protocols are being applied worldwide. And one of the biggest ones that has been applied almost the world over has been social distancing—an act of keeping space between you and others outside your home, and one that’s being imposed through partial or complete lockdowns.

However, this worldwide measure enforced on people has revealed not just massive shortcomings, for instance in the public health sector and manpower, but also made worse some of the most acute pre-existing problems such as poverty, unemployment, economic setbacks and inequalities. And this has been especially bad in some countries in Asia. In India, for instance, the lockdown rendered hundreds of thousands of migrants not only jobless and homeless but is continuing to push them into a life of distress as they either struggle to walk hundreds of kilometres back home or await in anxiety in quarantine centres set up by the government and NGOs.

And India is not alone. The World Bank estimates that while the coronavirus will increase global poverty for the first time since 1998, some 40-60 million will be pushed deeper into extreme poverty. In South Asia, alone, 16 million people are projected to suffer financially because of coronavirus, with India covering 12 million, while countries like China and Indonesia forecasted to have more than one million people each. Even problems of inadequate housing systems, unemployment and overpopulation are being exacerbated under the situation.

So when countries enforce lockdowns to impose social distancing, is it even a realistic measure? VICE reached out to people across the continent to find out.

Afghanistan

Afghan people have gone through serious years of war and witnessed horrible days, worse than COVID-19, which is why people do not treat this virus as a big risk. Another reason why social distancing is a challenge here is that a majority of people are brought up with religious beliefs and they depend on god rather than safety instructions. Culture is another factor for people to avoid social distancing. Here, people hug, kiss and shake hands as greeting, and not doing so is seen as disrespectful. On top of all of this, Afghan health services are not equipped with developed tools, and the patients have not been treated well in several cases. We’ve seen many positive patients escaping from hospitals because of this lack of medical services.—Hussain Sadat, freelance journalist, Kabul.

India

We all know Dharavi is in the middle of Mumbai city—it’s the heart of Mumbai city spreading over 600 acres and you can imagine it’s a lot of people here. It’s a congested area with a lot of bylanes. This is where I live. And social distancing is really difficult here because it’s a crowded place and one house has around six people living in it. You get out from your house, and there are 10-15 houses nearby. For the high-class people, social distancing will be easy because their houses are big. For the poor, it is really tough because people live in cramped places and the bylanes are also extremely narrow.—Rajesh Radhakrishnan, musician, Mumbai.

Sri Lanka

I come from a family of four children and we live in the Ekala town in the Gampaha district, one of the major towns under a constant lockdown ever since the virus hit Sri Lanka. As of now, social distancing has been accepted positively by some people, and negatively by some. For example, it’s easy for people like me to maintain social distancing, observe the curfew and stay at home because we’re not daily wage earners and we don’t have any reason to go out unless it’s for work. But thousands of people have been arrested for violating the curfew and we cannot blame them because they need to either conduct essential services or buy essential goods and medicines. The poor and the daily wage earners, along with the delivery services people, have been hit the hardest because they rely on daily salaries. When disasters strike, the people who are almost always affected are the poor, and it’s no different right now.—Cassendra Doole, freelance journalist, Ekala Town.

Bangladesh

[People like me] are a privileged group because we can stay and work from home. We don’t have to go outside unless there’s an essential thing to do or an emergency. But in Bangladesh, there are 60 million people who are wage earners, who live hand-to-mouth, and if they don’t go outside for a certain period they can’t really get food for their families. We recently went for a food relief distribution in a slum and we tried to maintain social distancing and told people that they have to stand three feet apart from one another. But in just 10 minutes, 200 people gathered. You can’t blame them because they do not have food. When they see people coming with food relief, they will come and try grabbing as much as possible. So, how can you really make sure that these people are maintaining a social distance from each other?—Tanjilut Tasnuba, National Programme Officer for Policy and Governance (__Skills 21 Project), International Labour Organisation, Dhaka

Indonesia

I’m a singer-songwriter living in a street that is the most crowded and busy in the city. I feel anxious living in such a dense and crowded neighbourhood because anybody could be the carrier. Everyday you get out of the house, you’ve to be around people you’ve never met before. I’ve bumped into many foreigners too. On top of that, when the outbreak happened, the people and the government made fun of the news in China. They would say Indonesia is resistant to that kind of virus because we’ve survived so much more. Today, though, social distancing has made me aware of the massive gap in inequalities in Indonesia. There will be a bunch of people like me, my family and my friends who are privileged enough to live at home, but then there are others who don’t have that choice. For middle class to upper class, social distancing is very realistic. For low-income people, it’s barely realistic.—Mutiara Azka, musician, south Jakarta.

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