‘The unlock has started’: India reopens shopping malls and temples despite sharp rise in coronavirus cases

Customers and worshippers mostly stayed away – but those who did venture out faced strict measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection 

Adam Withnall
,Tripta Narang
Monday 08 June 2020 19:22
Customers are required to go through several levels of disinfection, checks and contactless security measures before entering the Select Citywalk mall in Delhi
Customers are required to go through several levels of disinfection, checks and contactless security measures before entering the Select Citywalk mall in Delhi

There was no fanfare and only a trickle of customers as the largest mall in Delhi reopened its doors on Monday morning for the first time since March.

The reopening of shopping centres and religious gatherings are now permitted across India as part of a phased end to the world’s largest coronavirus lockdown. This is despite the country’s caseload continuing on a sharp upwards trajectory that has seen it leapfrog Italy and Spain into fifth in the world in the last couple of days, with more than 258,000 cases.

The capital Delhi has been a major hotspot, yet its chief minister Arvind Kejriwal confirmed at the weekend that the city would follow national guidelines and reopen offices, malls, temples and restaurants from Monday – the latter at reduced capacity.

Some on social media called for people to stay away regardless, and ongoing concerns about Delhi’s 27,000 Covid-19 cases proved an effective deterrent, with temples and gurdwaras visited by The Independent largely deserted.

At Select Citywalk, a three-storey south Delhi mall that caters to the city’s wealthy elite and employs some 5,000 people, visitors were required to have their temperature taken, pass through airport-style security instead of the usual manual frisking, and walk through a tunnel that sprayed them with mild disinfectant.

Once inside, there were reminders everywhere that this is not a normal shopping experience. Announcements over the PA system requested customers maintain social distancing, electronic advertising billboards carried messages about the mandatory use of face masks, and floor markings at tills, shop entrances and escalators keep people six feet apart at all times.

Some shops were taking extreme measures to reassure customers about their safety. A manager at a shop selling books, boardgames and toys said any item touched (but not bought) by a browsing customer would be disinfected, removed from shelves and kept away from the shop floor for 24 hours. They were yet to actually receive any customers, an hour after opening.

Salons across India are being allowed to ply their trade again for the first time, but in the mall manicurists and beauticians sat bored as the few customers present stayed well clear.

The mall, which employs 5,000 people and would normally be busy throughout the day, was all but deserted as it opened its doors for the first time since lockdown began

Those who did come to shop fell into two distinct categories: those who came with a clear errand in mind and wanted to get out as fast as possible, and those for whom shopping malls are a way of life, and who couldn’t wait any longer for it to resume.

Gori, a woman in her fifties trailed by an assistant with arms filled with her shopping bags, fell into the latter group. She said she had come for “some cosmetics, some of my favourite perfumes that I needed”.

“This place is normally buzzing,” she said. “There are fewer people but it is understandable because it is the first day. People will take their time to come out.”

Asked if she was concerned the country was lifting the lockdown too soon, she said: “There’s never going to be a right time [to open up]. All I know is life has to carry on, we cannot run away from it. We have to face it, we have to get on with our lives. I think that’s important.”

Rashi, 32, stood outside a jewellery and accessories store as her sister shopped inside. She said they came “just for the basics, for something that I needed urgently”, though declined to say what that was, and that they had taken precautions for the excursion including travelling with one of the two sat in the back of their car.

“We are not browsing at all, we hope to spend no more than 15 minutes here, get what we need and drive straight home,” she said. “Of course there is a lot fear, because this is a highly contagious infection. The unlock has started and this is the very first day, so we know that no matter how safe we have kept ourselves, now is the time when corona may strike. Now is the time when we need to be most diligent.”

Staff at shops were cleaning every surface meticulously, as well as offering gloves, hand sanitiser and spare masks to those who required them

But teenagers Lucky and Pankaj said they too wanted to spend as little time in the mall as possible. Lucky, they explained, was a “model, actor and social media influencer”, and they needed to visit the Apple Store because his laptop wasn’t working.

“We have been responsible, we don’t go outside to just chill, or go to parties at all. We only go out for work,” Lucky said. “It isn’t right that they opened up, because cases are still very high. We feel it is risky to come here – you don’t know who could be a coronavirus patient. [But] my laptop is important for work.”

Across south Delhi in Chittaranjan Park, a small Hindu temple also opened its doors for the first time in months, and it too with strict instructions for visitors – but the priest told The Independent that no one had come, despite it being open for 10 hours since 7am.

Pankaj (left) and Lucky said they only came to the mall to get a laptop repaired, and that they felt it was a ‘risky’ trip

Religious gatherings are a particularly contentious point in India’s lockdown, after a large Islamic conference in Delhi that began in early March was linked to a number of states’ first recorded cases of the virus.

Priyanka, 35, approached the temple with her mother but decided against entering. She told The Independent it wasn’t right that the government was allowing religious gatherings to open so soon.

“They are playing with peoples emotions,” she said. “For three months we have been doing pujas [prayers] at home, we could have easily continued doing it for longer. For me it is about faith, we can pray wherever we are so there’s no need to open the temples.”

India’s lockdown may have bought its medical infrastructure some time to prepare, but there is no indication from case numbers to suggest that it has contained the virus’s spread.

After Mumbai, the country’s biggest hotspot of cases, Delhi is now experiencing severe pressure on hospitals and running out of bed space. A panel of experts told the Indian Express the capital is looking at having 100,000 cases by the end of this month, and there are growing reports in local media of families being unable to find a hospital that will take their relative dying from Covid-19.

Mr Kejriwal, the chief minister, claimed without providing evidence that some private hospitals were profiteering from the worsening outbreak by setting aside beds for the highest bidder. “We will not tolerate this mischief,” he told reporters on Sunday.

And in another sign of the strain on the system, he announced that hospitals run by the Delhi state government would be ordered to retain their beds for residents of the city only. Outsiders would have to go to one of the major hospitals run by the federal government, he said.

The order was overturned on Monday by the state’s top civil servant, who said hospitals could not legally deny patients care on such a basis.

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