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Despatches from an Urban Containment Zone: Tales of Fear, Anxiety, and Cautious Optimism during Covid-19 Crisis

Containment Zones Delhi

As two policemen struggled to erect a makeshift barrier to block a narrow lane leading to Badkhal Village, one of the numerous urban villages that dot the National Capital Region of Delhi, 62-year-old Rajni Devi (name changed on request) craned her neck out of the only window that overlooked the street of her box-shaped tiny home, and asked, ‘Will you deliver the milk we need every morning for my grandchildren?’ Her fear and uncertainty bordered on the palpable because come midnight, her area would be completely cut off from the rest of the city of Faridabad. The reason was that it had been designated as a Containment Zone due to the spread of Coronavirus. As the entire country grapples with lockdown, some areas are being identified as hotspots and declared as Containment Zones — which means an absolute ban on venturing outside by residents of that area and closure of all shops including essential services, with the promise that state authorities would supply ration and other necessary items such as medicines to all the homes residing within that area. 

‘Will you deliver the milk we need every morning for my grandchildren?’

If the lockdown seemed disorienting and frightening, a containment zone feels like a page out of a dystopian novel. But, the authorities say, it is vitally important to isolate such zones where there are multiple confirmed cases of Covid-19 and, in some cases, a cluster of suspected ones. In Faridabad, alone, there are 13 such containment areas as of now. In all over Delhi NCR, which includes the satellite townships of Faridabad, Gurgaon, Noida, and Ghaziabad, the number is staggering — a total of 77 clusters have been identified to be ‘contained’. These include small urban villages, entirely planned sectors, and sometimes, even a single apartment complex. All such zones are under complete lockdown till 15 April, but the blockade could be extended as testing and isolation gather steam. 

The challenge is herculean for the authorities. They are tasked with the thorough sanitization of these entire clusters, reaching out to every house, and identifying possible Covid-19 positive patients. But, perhaps, the most difficult task of the lot is to deliver daily essential services to households that easily run into a few lakhs. This is the adoption of the so-called ‘Bhilwara Model’ from Rajasthan. Once it was clear that Bhilwara, a mid-sized town in the Mewar region of Rajasthan, had become a hotspot of Coronavirus, the local administration shut it down completely. With vigorous testing and tightening curbs, Bhilwara reported being completely Covid-19 free on 9 April. For a small town that reported a peak number of 27 cases on 31 March, this was a staggering achievement — and it has compelled other states to follow suit. 

‘I understand that the government will give us ration, but how are we supposed to pay rent and electricity bills if no one is earning?’

But as I visited Badkhal Village to take stock of the ground situation, insecurities and inconveniences of the residents tumbled out. For someone like Rajni Devi’s family, staying completely shut at home is fraught with financial hardships. Her husband is a vegetable vendor and was working even when I visited them on 9 April, but he was supposed to bring the vegetable cart home by 4 p.m. that day and not venture out till the end of the lockdown. They have a son, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Her son worked as a laborer at a construction site and has been jobless since the lockdown began. ‘I understand that the government will give us ration, but how are we supposed to pay rent and electricity bills if no one is earning?’ she lamented. It is a dilemma plaguing many. 

The police personnel in charge of enforcing the containment were skeptical too. ‘These are small houses with big families. It is their culture to venture out on the streets to get a breather. How will we convince them to stay all the time together?’ exclaimed the constable struggling to balance the bamboo stick meant for blocking the small lane. The authorities are putting up a brave front though. The district commissioner of Faridabad, Yashpal Yadav, struck a cautiously optimistic note in his daily press address a day after the Containment Zones policy was implemented. He said, ‘We have had no new cases today… The situation seems to be better and it has been possible only because of your cooperation.’ He added, ‘Initial screenings of all the 13 containment zones have been carried out. Among the 45,000 households that were surveyed, 199 people have been identified with flu-like symptoms. We will get their tests done and provide them with all the medical facilities they need.’

‘We have had no new cases today… The situation seems to be better and it has been possible only because of your cooperation.’

Yashpal Yadav, District Commissioner of Faridabad

For the residents, such updates carry little weight apart from a mild optimism that containment will be over soon if lesser cases are detected. ‘I fear stigma. I work as a helper in a sweet shop but once they know that I am from a Containment Zone, they might just fire me,’ said a sullen-looking Bhushan, aged 24, as he waited with the policemen for the sanitization team to arrive just outside the barricade. He added with a sheepish grin, ‘Don’t know how this sprinkling of “chemical solution” helps. Our drains are open and, at the hint of the lightest off-season rains, they overflow.’ And that, somehow, is the reality of many of these places where each new restriction brings a mix of anxiety and an underlying suspicion that livelihoods will be permanently damaged.

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