For Indian workers, blocking the coronavirus is an order to starve

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the 1.3 billion citizens of India to be closed to fight the spread of the coronavirus, urging people to distance themselves socially and work from home.

But social distancing means starvation for many in India, with a workforce that relies heavily on manual labor. It would be an unprecedented luxury for the ragper or street vendor who lives day by day.

About 80 percent of India's 470 million workers are in the informal sector, without contracts, and not protected by labor laws. Many are manual workers in the fields, factories, and streets of India.

We asked people how they were making ends meet as the economy stalled with the coronavirus pandemic. India reported 1,024 cases and 27 deaths as of Sunday. These are some of their stories:

Ashu, 12 | ragpicker

Ashu and his two brothers spend their days in one of Delhi's largest garbage dumps. They are rag pickers, scavengers looking for scrap metal using a giant, rusty sieve to help them sort the stinky debris.

If Ashu works very hard, he can earn 53 cents a day. He and his brothers have been unable to go to the landfill regularly since the closure was announced because if the police catch them, they will be beaten.

"I miss my friends," he said, adding that he and four friends would meet in the garbage can every morning, work for a few hours, and then play with the treasures they found: broken toy cars, tattered dolls, and torn clothes.

"I heard that there is a China virus," Ashu said. "But I am more afraid of the police and not being able to eat."

"When the money dries up, we will have to find a way to get back here," he said.

Ramchandran Ravidas, 42 | bicycle rickshaw driver

On a Wednesday afternoon, normally rush hour in Delhi, Ramchandran Ravidas was circling large, lazy circles in the middle of a main street, boredom, hunger and his empty pockets in his mind.

On a good day, if you have "a lot of energy," you can earn up to Rs 450, or $ 6, he said. He lives in the garage where he rents his bicycle rickshaw and worries that he will be evicted soon; It has had no clients since closing.

"If you don't even have a house, how can you work from home?" Mr. Ravidas said, lines of concern furrowing his face. "My house is my work. Today was the first time in my life that I had to accept food from a charity. ”

He said that, for him, it was a race between whether the virus or hunger affected him first.

"I'm not worried about the crown; if the crown comes looking for me, at least this life of misery will be over," said Mr. Ravidas, grinning as he laughed out loud.

Baudghiri, 60 | sadhu (religious ascetic)

Walking barefoot through the deserted streets of Delhi, in his tattered and tattered saffron-colored clothing, Baudghiri said he had not eaten in two days. Sadhu, or religious ascetic, earns around $ 1.50 every day offering prayers to people on the street.

Mr. Baudghiri, who has only one name, had never been hungry in his life, he said, and had always found a meal in Hindu temples or gurdwaras, places of Sikh worship. But they have closed since closing began last week.

While he agreed with the prime minister's decision to try to prevent the spread of the virus by limiting the movement of people, he was frustrated with the lack of government planning for homeless people like him.

"I don't have a house to practice social distancing," he said. “I go from one place to another, temple to temple, to eat. But the whole city is closed.

In all his decades of walking through India, Baudghiri said he has never seen India so paralyzed.

"In every crisis, the gurdwaras, the temples were all open," he said. “We were still able to feed ourselves and find refuge. I have never seen this panic in my entire life. "

Raj Kumari | Street sweeper

After sweeping the leaves and garbage off a deserted street and dumping them in his rusty wheelbarrow, Raj Kumari said the silence of the normal Delhi cacophony was glorious, but disturbing.

She used to sweep the streets of Delhi with her husband, but he died eight years ago. He is now the sole breadwinner for his six children, after his oldest son was fired from his tech job last week due to the blockade.

"It's just me and the sewer cleaners here now," he said.

The blockade has affected public transportation, and he now walks two hours just to get to work.

"This is what I have to do for money, for life," he said. "Even if the streets are empty, I have to get out. I don't have the pleasure of staying at home, this is my duty ".

The government never provided Ms. Kumari, who does not know her exact age, gloves or masks for her job. But one of her daughters banned her from working without protective equipment during the pandemic and gave her a mask her school had donated to students to protect against the infamous Delhi contamination.

"I am not afraid of the crown," said Kumari. "Why would someone fear death when it is time for God to take you?"

Mohan Singh, 18 years old | fruit seller

Every morning, Mohan Singh and his father fill their carts with fruit and carry their loads to work on a busy corner of the street. Although their jobs are considered necessary and permissible during closing, they say clients are too afraid to come to their cars. By mid-morning, they had served a customer between them.

"If we are afraid of this disease, we will die in our homes," Singh said, adding that he and his father support his entire family of six.

Singh said he was concerned that the government would help big business and that small businesses like his would be ignored. Although the government announced a $ 22 billion aid package to support the millions who became unemployed due to the crisis, some say people in the informal workforce, such as Singh, will have trouble getting help.

"They need to help people like us," he said. “There are more people working on the streets than the largest companies in India. If we close, no one can eat. "

Arjun Chauhan, 18 years old | water distributor

Many Indian houses lack running water or water safe enough to drink, making Arjun Chauhan's work a necessity during closure. He crossed the streets of Delhi on his moped bike, packed with leaking water bottles.

"If we stay home, my family is hungry and India is thirsty," Chauhan said, adding that her parents and five siblings depend on their wages.

Since closing, Mr. Chauhan has seen his daily earnings halve by about $ 8. He said he had been unable to reach all of his clients because the police had prevented him from delivering and even beat him for being on the streets, although according to the closing rules, deliveries of necessary items such as medicines and water are supposed to be allowed.