World

Poor Indian workers flee cities in lockdown. Widodo resists calls for large-scale lockdown. Singapore high court upholds anti-gay law. Jair Bolsonaro urges Brazilian businesses to reopen. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Poor flee cities as India locks down

Workers and their families in the outskirts of Delhi this week jostle to board buses back to their native villages as India goes into lockdown.
Credit: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

India: Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has imposed the world’s biggest Covid-19 lockdown, forcing the nation’s 1.3 billion people to stay at home for 21 days. But the measure is proving devastating for the estimated 270 million people in the country who live in poverty.

In typical fashion, Modi, who suddenly declared in 2016 that most of the country’s banknotes were void, gave people just four hours’ notice before the lockdown came into effect. The announcement forced tens of millions of workers in major cities who survive on small daily wages to rush back to their homes in rural areas. This led to desperate scenes in which people walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes as transport was shut down; dozens reportedly died along the way. But the “barefoot migration” has also raised fears that the virus may spread across the country.

On Tuesday, the government warned that as many as one in three of these migrant workers could be infected. Authorities have shut roads and started a mass distribution of grains and pulses, as well as providing gas cooking cylinders to 83 million poor families and monthly payments of $10.80 (500 rupees) to 200 million women.

India is a rising nation but its growth has been sporadic, and it is poorly equipped to deal with a severe outbreak. By Tuesday, it had conducted just 38,000 tests for Covid-19. It has seven hospital beds per 10,000 people, one of the lowest rates in the world; the United States has 29, Australia has 38, and China has 42.

But health experts say the relatively young population and the strict lockdown may help to contain the outbreak.

On Tuesday, Ramanan Laxminarayan, who is advising the Indian government on its response, told Science magazine: “India is probably the first large developing country and democracy into which this pandemic will arrive.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Indonesia: Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, has resisted pressure to impose a lockdown across the nation or in Jakarta, which is already dealing with a serious Covid-19 outbreak.

The country has one of the highest fatality rates – almost 10 per cent – which is believed to be due to a lack of testing and inadequate health services. Staff at hospitals have been forced to wear raincoats or aprons instead of protective suits. As of Wednesday, at least 10 doctors and a nurse were among the country’s 136 victims.

Indonesia was one of the worst-affected countries during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, in which an estimated 1.5 to 4.5 million people died from a population of 50 million. Today, the country has about 270 million residents.

On Tuesday, the government banned foreigners from entering the country. But Widodo has expressed concern about the social impacts of a large-scale lockdown, fearing the consequences for millions of people who live on scant wages.

Jakarta’s governor, Anies Baswedan, has been pushing for stricter measures and has urged residents to stay in the city to prevent the virus spreading elsewhere. Baswedan this week revealed that as many as 283 people in Jakarta may have died due to the virus in March – a toll that would include those suspected of being infected but who had not been tested.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Singapore: On Monday, Singapore’s high court upheld section 377A of the penal code, a colonial-era law that bans gay sex.

The law, a relic of the Victorian era, was inherited from section 377 of India’s penal code, which was struck down by an Indian court just more than a year ago.

Singapore repealed its own section 377 in 2007, which outlawed oral and anal sex, but retained the ban on gay sex between males, who face penalties of up to two years in jail. The law is rarely invoked, but activists say it leads to discrimination and brands all gay men in the city-state as criminals.

A summary of the court’s finding said section 377A was not redundant, even though it was not enforced. “Legislation remains important in reflecting public sentiment and beliefs,” the summary said.

The appeal against the law was brought by three gay men, one of whom, Bryan Choong, promised to continue to push to overturn the ban. “My eyes are firmly on the road ahead,” he told Reuters.

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, told the BBC in 2017 that section 377A was an “uneasy compromise”. “I’m prepared to live with it until social attitudes change,” he said.

Same-sex relations are banned in about 70 states. More than half of these are former colonies that inherited the laws. Addressing Commonwealth leaders in 2018, former British prime minister Theresa May expressed regret and urged countries to overturn the bans. “They were wrong then, and they are wrong now,” she said.

SPOTLIGHT: Brazil’s ‘little flu’

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, urged state governors this week to end their shutdowns, saying the measures were a hysterical overreaction to Covid-19, which he describes as “just a little flu”.

Bolsonaro, who is aged 65 and has had abdominal surgeries that place him in the at-risk group for the virus, has been blithely dismissive of warnings that the country faces a looming emergency. In mid-March, after his press secretary tested positive for the coronavirus, the president ignored medical advice to socially isolate and attended political rallies, shaking hands with supporters and taking selfies with their phones.

This week, Facebook and Twitter removed his posts containing a video in which he walked around busy markets and called for a “return to normality”. Facebook said it does not publish “misinformation that could lead to physical harm”.

Bolsonaro’s ardent supporters have driven in motorcades across the country, honking horns to endorse the call for businesses to reopen. But most Brazilians support the shutdowns. Beaches and congested city streets are empty, most schools and shops are closed, and gangs and militias in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have imposed curfews because, according to a message broadcast by gangsters using loudspeakers, “nobody is taking this seriously”. In major cities, residents have staged evening protests from their balconies, in which they bang on pots and pans and yell “Bolsonaro out”.

Before the outbreak, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings had begun to increase as unemployment dropped and the economy showed signs of improvement. His response to Covid-19 appears to be designed to rally his loyal supporters and to ensure he can blame state governors for the impending economic downturn.

Brazil’s health service has been severely underfunded in recent years. The health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, an orthopaedic doctor, has urged everyone – including the president – to stay indoors. Bolsonaro reportedly threatened to sack him.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2020 as "Poor flee cities as India locks down".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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