I landed in Delhi on a work trip in mid-March and just over a week later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced what was soon recognized as the world’s strictest lockdown. He warned Indians to imagine “a sacrosanct line” around their homes, not to be breached for work or travel of any kind, not even a walk outdoors. Evoking the 18-day war described in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, Mr. Modi said it would take 21 days to win the war on the coronavirus.
Two months later, I am still cooped up in my house off Delhi’s Ring Road, by far the longest stretch I have spent in India since I first left for work in New York nearly two decades ago.
My immediate concern was that in its usual way, India was copying measures that rich countries take to protect public safety and welfare but that low-income countries cannot afford. I was in touch with officials in other major emerging countries and none advocated total lockdowns because without the resources to support new armies of the unemployed, closing the economy would only lead to more hunger and death.
Within days, millions of displaced migrant workers were coursing out of major Indian cities — thousands trudging right past my front door. Most were young men, released from construction jobs and evicted by nervous landlords. They planned to live on the kindness of strangers, which is not necessarily a losing bet in India, and to keep walking home to villages hundreds of miles away. I had to question how many would make it, walking side by side, at unsafe social distances. “It doesn’t matter,” one young man told me. “The government says that this is a serious disease, so what else can we do but go home?”
Delhi’s liberal elite has long criticized Mr. Modi for his autocratic style and Hindu-centric agenda, but they rallied behind his lockdown immediately. Though India had seen relatively few deaths from the virus, the media had broadcast many images of people dying alone in Italy, Spain and the United States, and fear was spreading faster than the virus.
Early on, the Modi administration made beds available for Covid-19 patients only in government hospitals — infamous hellholes the privileged avoid at all cost. A friend was only half joking when he told me, “Even if the virus isn’t going to kill you, getting sent to a government hospital will.”
After three weeks the government began replacing lockdown 1.0 with slightly looser versions, but instead of relaxing, many upper-class Indians were still confining themselves more strictly than the rules require — and learning to love it. They posted odes to recipe sharing, Netflix, Zoom cocktail parties, the clear view of the sky and moon as the smog lifted over an idle nation. They gasped over images of leopards venturing into shuttered cities like Chandigarh, 150 miles from Delhi. Ah, nature!
When I look out my living room window, I see dorms for the community staff and wonder how sublime this life can be for them. Does social distancing have any meaning for laborers packed six to a 200-square-foot room?
This crisis has been liberating for Indian bureaucrats and the police, self-important in normal times, “essential” now. WhatsApp is full of videos of the police beating people caught on the streets without a satisfactory excuse or forcing them to perform squats while holding their ears — a punishment common in government schools. The commentary on these clips is often more humorous than horrified, including one mash-up that went viral with cricket-style commentary.
By mid-April, many rich countries had started to debate reopening their economies, and protests were breaking out against lockdowns in several major U.S. states. In India, there was little public debate, much less protest. The hardest hit, the poor and unemployed, seem to accept their misery as fate, no doubt unaware of evidence showing that the more stringent the lockdown, the more severe the economic damage.
Some estimates suggest that India’s economy could contract by nearly 6 percent this year, making this the worst downturn in the country’s post-independence history.
All this and the Covid-19 death toll in India is around 4,700, fewer than the number who die, mostly in rural areas, each week from tuberculosis or diarrhea. Still, the urban elite has all the political influence, and most have remained steadfast supporters of the tough lockdown. “If the government lifts restrictions, millions of illiterate Indians will pour into the streets and superspread the disease,” a friend said.
But what of estimates showing that each week the lockdown is pushing tens of millions of Indians below the poverty line? The standard answer is: “The government should take care of them. Just look how much the United States is spending on displaced workers.” Never mind that India has about one-twentieth the average income of the United States and, with its dysfunctional bureaucracy, is particularly ill equipped to manage the sudden displacement of so many workers.
Constrained by high public debt and a large deficit, India’s government has increased spending by less than 2 percent of gross domestic product since the lockdowns began — compared with about 12 percent in the United States.
This lack of resources greatly complicates the challenge of helping the jobless in India, a far-flung group that is so hard to track that the government doesn’t regularly report the unemployment rate. But a credible Mumbai think tank estimates that it has tripled under the lockdown to 24 percent — well above the U.S. rate. And the United States has no group as large or underserved as the Indian migrant workers, who number around 140 million and for the most part do not qualify for India’s limited unemployment benefits.
For a while, the Indian media had stopped covering the flight of the itinerant laborers, sticking instead to positively patriotic takes on the war effort. But then 16 sleeping migrants were run over by a train on tracks they assumed, fatally, would be empty until the pandemic ends. Now they are back in the news.
Many of those laborers are testing positive when they get home, driving up India’s case count even as lockdown fatigue forces the authorities to ease up.
It is past midnight on Ring Road as I sit down to write. Outside, angry shouting erupts. I go out. It is the migrants, moving in small groups, one fending off an attack by thieves from the nearby slums. They had set out on rumors about an imminent lockdown 4.0, assuming the worst. I hope they make it home safe. But learning to love life under lockdown? That kind of love is too expensive for them.
Ruchir Sharma is the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, the author of, most recently, The Ten Rules of Successful Nations and a contributing Opinion writer. This essay reflects his opinions alone.