What a crazy time in the world. As I write this we’re in our 10th week of lockdown here in Mumbai, with another two week extension likely to be announced.
Corona (CO) Virus (VI) Disease (D) 2019, or COVID-19, originated in Wuhan China around the Chinese New Years. As of today, there are more articles than I can count on what species it started in, how it jumped to humans, and much more. Between all the news networks, private blogs, and social media feed it is impossible to know what to believe. So, I’m going to assume that you’ll have much better verified facts regarding all of this in the future, and stop there with the who, what and where.
What we have experienced over the last few months has been frustrating, stressful, exciting and so many other emotions. We watched as the world shut down borders, discovered the real flexibility and capacity of their healthcare and delivery systems, moved to virtual learning, started working from home, and so much more. The world as we know it has been trying to figure out how to handle this pandemic, and although experiences are different across the globe, everyone is impacted.
Before any official lockdown outside of China, there was first varying levels of travel restrictions. The first was the restriction of people who had been to the Wuhan area of China, followed by a restriction of foreign Visas allowed to enter the country to a complete shutdown of international travel.
In India the travel restrictions started in the middle of our Spring Break week. Purely by luck we decided not to travel for this years spring break because I had used up so much leave during my Dengue infection the prior summer. Many of our friends did travel and, for some, the restrictions stopped them from getting back into India or, worse yet, split up the family for what will likely be 4-6 months, but only time will tell.
The Indian government passed a travel restriction beginning March 12 allowing entry of Employment Visas and citizens only, among a few other obscure Visa types. The Employment Visa is the Visa most expats are on which is the one we are most familiar with and the designation effecting most of the people we know. What many people found out when they attempted to return from spring break was that the restriction did not include the dependents (family members) of the working adult. This meant that the person holding the employment Visa could get in, but their spouse and children could not return. We know several families who got stuck out of the country, others who arrived in India and were turned away, some made it to India and the spouse stayed here while the other was sent to another country. It was a tough situation for many people. We remained so thankful we decided not to travel for Spring Break and were able to be together as a family.
In India the lockdown phase started with a ‘Janta Curfew’ on March 22nd, 2020. This curfew was a voluntary house arrest where no one was to leave their homes from 7am to 9pm. From our building we saw, for the first time, zero people on the streets of Powai. Of course some did venture out to get photos and videos of the desolate streets, but for the most part the entire city seemed to be at a stand still. That evening there was also a moment of solidarity in which people were supposed to make noise by banging dishes together.
This type of gesture was very common throughout the world with people playing music, conducting group exercise classes and having parties from their balconies. I’m sure you’ll still be able to find these videos on the internet if you search hard enough.
The Official Lockdown
The following Tuesday the Government of India announced an official lockdown in which people could only leave their homes for essentials like groceries, doctors visits and pharmacies. This was expected, given what was happening in China at the time, so we, like many, prepared to hunker down the days before.
As a country with so many people living in close proximity there was truly a great risk of crashing the country’s health care system if a lockdown was not implemented early to contain the spread of the virus. At this point, the virus was in Mumbai and the slums were the area most at risk. With Mumbai’s 24 million people we were on our way to being one of the few hot spots for the country.
Once in place, the lockdown threw us back in time to when we first arrived in Mumbai and we struggled to get, well, anything. Grocery stores were out of a lot of things, although no one here hoarded toilet paper like they did in the US, and the lines were incredibly long. Delivery services went from an every day occurrence to nothing.
As a delivery oriented culture, the online groceries stores, like Big Basket, were immediately overwhelmed with the number of people trying to use their websites. Their warehouses, websites and delivery drivers were not prepared for this kind of overnight demand and the system basically crashed for weeks.
For essential service companies, the early days were spent working with the government to get permits to operate during the lockdown and try to find as many delivery drivers as they could. Even after opening back up it was almost impossible to get a delivery slot for groceries. On several occasions we had friends get delivery slots only if they stayed up until midnight. I tried getting up at 2am, on several occasions, to try my luck but came up empty handed.
Other companies that had brick and mortar stores, like Nature’s Basket, also tried to support the new demand, but their business model relied on the stores having products on the shelves. And the stores were basically empty. We were able to get a couple orders submitted but they were canceled because our location didn’t have what we ordered. This was definitely a low point of our lockdown experience, but as with everything else we got creative.
As the normal channels for getting groceries dried up, people started coming out of the woodwork to offer delivery directly to our apartment. Within the first few weeks we ordered organic vegetables from two different vendors, were introduced to the cheese supplier who stocked many of the grocery stores in our area, the Coca Cola distributor became our new supplier, we discovered a man on a bike came every other day to the building to supply eggs, bread, and Indian snacks, and the owner of a general store would deliver office products to us to support virtual learning even though legally he wasn’t allowed to be open. When we got all of this figured out, it was a real turning point and I suspect we’ll continue using many of the new services as we move away from the pandemic and towards the new normal.
Getting out to the grocery store was something we couldn’t completely avoid and I made a trip about once every two weeks. In the beginning it took around an hour to get inside the store just to find out that they didn’t have half of what we needed. Your mother was excited that I had the chance to experience grocery shopping here in Mumbai and honestly, so was I. She was already the queen of substitutions, but this took her to another level. She’s amazing and we couldn’t be successful here without her.
In the early phase of the lockdown there were a lot of people taking advantage of repatriation flights coordinated by their home country to get citizens out of India. In the first few weeks your mother and I spoke a lot about leaving, more so when we couldn’t seem to get the next few days planned out. We had so many things to consider with the decision to leave or stay. It was difficult to know if we were making the right choice.
Leaving would have been for an unknown duration with all international flights restricted and even when we could return we weren’t sure how long the Employment Visa restriction would be in place. Then there was the unknown of where we’d go in the US. Our house wasn’t an option with friends living there and going home to Iowa wasn’t really an option either with grandparents working in healthcare and banking. Ultimately, we decided to stay in India. With all the difficulty, the truth was we were safe and all together and would remain in our home.
As usual everything starting ironing out and deliveries opened back up, most importantly restaurant deliveries and the grocery stores starting seeing more of their usual products. It was a day to celebrate when Amazon was able to deliver essentials. We’re still waiting for them to be able to deliver non-essentials, and will celebrate that day as well.
In many cases we were lucky that I had just returned from the US in February and brought back a good amount of comfort food from the US that just isn’t available in India, or is a much higher price due to import duties. Examples are Fruit Loops, which are around $14 in India as I’m writing this. So with food figured out, our next challenge was virtual learning.
You kids did an amazing job at being home for such a long time without getting outside. You three were inside our apartment for a little over 5 weeks before we got the opportunity to take you down to the parking platform so you could stretch your legs. Luckily we bought a treadmill from a departing expat last year, so we were able to get you some exercise while stuck in the apartment. You all got a real kick out of it. Just the other day you went with me to pickup a delivery in the lobby and I realized you hadn’t been there in 70 days.
The transition to virtual learning was hard, no doubt about it. Daily arguments, crying, and tantrums became part of the routine very early on. It was hard on all of us.
As far as curriculum the school did a really good job with the transition and we did our best to make sure you didn’t miss out on anything, although we eventually had to let go of your specials.
With all of you in different classes we had three slide decks to cover each day and that was a challenge when you weren’t in the mood to read a book, join a call, or do crafts and math activities. It was taxing on your mom, but since I was working from home we quickly figured out a schedule that allowed me to step in when everyone was done.
Johnathon, you and I worked on math everyday and I really enjoyed it. I really got to see you grow and I loved it. When we started you had just entered a fraction unit and we used all types of items around the house to help work them into your day. Before we knew it you were seeing fractions everywhere, and telling us about them all the time. I saw you apply math to your every day life and watched your confidence grow – it was awesome.
Easter arrived before we knew it and not getting out really limited our ability to find treats for our annual Easter egg hunt. Luckily we have some amazing friends in the building who shared a few of theirs to help us make sure we could keep the tradition alive.
Christopher also lost his other front tooth during the lockdown which was exciting for several days as we all watched it get loose and eventually fall out. Fortunately the tooth fairy was able to make a stop at the house although she must have had a tougher job because she didn’t make it to Mumbai until early in the morning.
The Lockdown Continued…June, & July
Back in the US the COVID cases continued to rise, with New York being the country’s hot spot for quite some time. Before Easter the country was talking about opening things back up in time for the Easter holiday, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A lot of wishful thinking was taking place all over the globe with respect to how fast we would be getting back to normal.
After the first three week lockdown, India extended the lockdown in two week blocks and before we knew it we were in May. The month was memorable because the AC in Madelyn’s room stopped working, with our AC breaking down a few weeks after that. With AC services not considered an essential service we moved Madelyn to the boys room, but when ours stopped working we had to get creative.
We contacted the society and they had a technician on staff who was able to come to the apartment and fix both AC’s in a couple of days. To do so he had to get a daily permit from the Powai police station that allowed him to be out on the road. The technician turned out to be awesome and we plan to use him in the future. After his first visit he determined we had a blown capacitor and the other had a tube rupture so no gas.
The COVID cases in India continued to climb through the month of May and although it did appear that we successfully flattened the curve that approach by definition extends the curve. The benefit is that you don’t peak quickly and overrun the healthcare system but instead add cases slowly which should be more manageable. Even with the numbers continuing to increase we experienced a steady 3% increase in daily cases through May, June, and July.
After May, we really did start to see things open back up. Other states weren’t seeing the same number of cases as Maharashtra and they were either still open, back open or starting to open in some way. The government allowed for the delivery of non-essentials from companies like Amazon, more restaurants were opening every day and they allowed the liquor stores to open back up for delivery only.
Quick side bar, the liquor stores were allowed to open back up at around the six week mark, but people did what they usually do and screwed it up. Lines outside the liquor stores in Powai were blocks long and there was zero social distancing. So, the government quickly shut them back down within two days. Some were shutdown within hours.
With non-essentials approved for delivery and the liquor stores back open we could feel things moving back to normal. No, it wasn’t fast but it was progress. In the middle of May the government started operating select long distance trains from Delhi to places all around the country, including Mumbai. The cars could only have two passengers and all passengers had to have masks and be checked for temperatures before entering the station.
On May 25th domestic flights started operating, with the same restriction, and although many were canceled for various reasons there were hundreds of flights operating on the first day.
As we rolled into monsoon season we couldn’t help but think about the fact that we were supposed to be leaving for our summer trip home. It’s was tough seeing those dates come and go. Back in March the airline canceled the flights we had booked back to the US, so we’ve known for some time that it was very unlikely that things would be back to normal enough to make the trip around the world.
The US has been interesting to watch, and even more interesting to compare to our lockdown experience. Many people we talk to in the US told us that although they are in a ‘Shelter in Place’ order they get out to the parks, playgrounds, and family gatherings. Not so here, and seeing people in multiple locations across a few days was hard. Cabin fever really started setting in by the middle of July, around 100 days of being inside our building.
Overall I think India has done a good job with proactively managing this situation. There are many undesirable outcomes of a COVID breakout, but the one that worries us the most is an overrun of the local hospitals. Similar to what happened in Italy and New York City. The close proximity of people living in Mumbai and number of multigenerational homes make it a much larger risk for all the negative outcomes.
As I write this, the lockdown is not over and I believe it’s going to last for several more months, at least for Mumbai. On paper things are opening up, but none of that is being seen in Mumbai. Early in the lockdown we had wins at least every week or so, but now even though we can get what we need, we see no end in sight.
Mom & Dad