'Putting economy before life?' - Voices from the pandemic

(ĐTTCO) - Living in coronavirus lockdown, Asia adapts to a new abnormal
With around a third of the world's population under some form of mandated isolation, Asia's citizens are attempting to adjust to a new reality.    © Illustration by Eric Chow
With around a third of the world's population under some form of mandated isolation, Asia's citizens are attempting to adjust to a new reality. © Illustration by Eric Chow

The novel coronavirus pandemic has triggered unprecedented economic, social and political disruption across the world. Governments have struggled to contain its spread, putting in place sweeping restrictions on travel and business and leaving their citizens to adapt to a strange, new and locked-down normal.

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'If I don't work, how am I supposed to buy any food?'

NEW DELHI -- For nearly a week after the Indian government announced a nationwide lockdown in its effort to rein in the spread of the coronavirus, Chotu Kumar went hungry. A laborer in Ahmedabad, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, he wasn't alone.

Kumar and nearly 80 others from his village -- situated some 1,700 km away on the opposite side of the country -- work and live together, between five and eight of them occupying 8-sq.-foot rooms.

On March 24, Modi announced an almost total lockdown of India's 1.3 billion people with just hours' notice, giving Kumar and other migrant workers little time to buy supplies. In any case, they had little money to do so.

"I work all day and then I earn money," Kumar said. "If I don't work, how am I supposed to buy any food?"

Food finally reached him and his fellow villagers when ANHAD, a nonprofit working to help stranded migrants in the state, heard about their plight.

Migrant labor fuels large sections of the Indian economy. Millions across the country work on construction sites, in agriculture, and in factories big and small. In many cases, they live on the same premises where they work. With the lockdown, which also banned interstate transport, hundreds of thousands of these workers became jobless and homeless in the blink of an eye. They tried to make their way to their villages on foot, swelling into one of the largest migrations in post-independence India.

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Shamsal, who goes by one name, was one of the lucky ones who made it home before the lockdown. A native of the eastern state of Bihar, one of the poorest in the country, he works with a contractor in Delhi, fixing people's homes. As news of the virus spread, fear grew, work came to a standstill and he resolved to head home. "There were so many rumors, so many stories about the virus, that I got scared and left everything and came back," he said.

His employer still owes him 15,000 rupees ($196). That could have supported his family of eight. The government has promised rations and medical supplies, but these have yet to materialize.

Once the government lifts its moratorium, Shamsal will be heading back to Delhi. "There is no work here in the village, so how will I earn any money, how will I look after my family?" he said. "I don't have any option but to return."

Kumar longs to go the other way -- back to his family.

Cases of COVID-19 have been rising in Ahmedabad, and authorities have reduced the number of available travel passes, making it harder for ANHAD to move supplies around the city, said Dev Desai, the nonprofit's Gujarat coordinator. Their task has been further complicated by malicious misinformation spreading on social media.

Kumar, a Hindu, saw a video online -- since debunked by fact-checking site Boom Live -- that Muslims were spitting on food to spread the virus, and he refused to accept food supplies from his Muslim delivery agent.

For the past two days, Kumar and his compatriots have lived on boiled rice. He can cope with that, he said, but he is struggling not knowing how his wife and children are coping. When they speak on the phone, Kumar lies and tells them that he is eating well, even when he has no food. They say the same, and it is tearing him up. "I just want to go home and see how they really are," he said. -- MEGHA BAHREE

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'It's a big change, because I need to come up with a new series'

SINGAPORE -- The day the Singaporean government announced its "circuit breaker," a monthlong shutdown of workplaces and a ban on public gatherings, vlogger Ghib Ojisan went outside to shoot one last time.

In "Singapore Semi-Lockdown Diary Day 0," posted to his YouTube channel on April 7, he showed the long lines building at supermarkets, with all the patrons waiting a meter apart from each other. Osaka-born Ghib Ojisan, who asked to be referred to as "Ken," has built a following of around 130,000 people with a video diary of his life in Singapore, mostly filmed outdoors.

Ken lives on the advertising revenue from his videos, and in the months leading up to the lockdown his earnings fell 30% to 40%.

Under the circuit breaker rules, people can exercise outside -- alone -- and some public spaces have been closed. Food outlets are only open for takeout, and supermarkets are operating with strict social distancing measures in place.

"I cannot do my normal vlogs outside filming the neighborhood," Ken told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It's a big change, because I need to come up with a new series."

As a self-employed foreign national, he does not qualify for the state's emergency income support.

The circuit breaker, which was imposed after a rise in COVID-19 cases in the city-state, has disrupted many lives and businesses, particularly for the self-employed. Essential services like health care and logistics still allowed to operate, but almost all other workplaces are closed, meaning that people have to adapt to working remotely.

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Real estate agent Gerald Leong usually spends four or five hours a day meeting with potential clients and showing them around properties. That has all had to be suspended during the shutdown, and he has switched to offering advice to clients via videoconference in the hope that he can close some deals once the shutdown ends. He does not qualify for the government's income support scheme due to the value of his property, and with no income likely, at least for the next month, he is having to rely on his savings.

"This is primarily a face-to-face business," he told Nikkei. "If you take away the face-to-face element where I can't meet the person, like physically, right? Then, it's very hard to do business," Leong said.

The circuit breaker is scheduled to end on June 1, but the disruption caused by the pandemic is likely to last for a long time. Tan Ern Ser, associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore, told Nikkei that the indefinite time frame of the outbreak means that these temporary measures may evolve into permanent changes in how people live and work.

"Employers and employees now have to get used to telecommute and videoconferencing," Tan said, adding that "this means a further blurring of the boundary between work life and family life." -- DYLAN LOH

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'I have only 100,000 yen left and nowhere else to go'

TOKYO -- On April 6, the night before the Japanese government declared a state of emergency over Tokyo, 23-year-old Sekito Yoshikawa collected all of his belongings and moved out of the internet cafe where he had lived for the past few weeks. His space was not even big enough for him to stretch his legs, but at 1,298 yen ($12) a night, it was affordable.

Yoshikawa's plans have been thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic. First, he had to quit his job delivering for Uber Eats in Australia and return to Japan earlier than he expected. He found a role as a teaching assistant in Tokyo; then the schools were shut, and he was out of work again.

"I expected none of this to happen. I have only 100,000 yen left and nowhere else to go," he said.

Then, when the state of emergency was declared, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested that many businesses shut down, including internet cafes, in seven prefectures, including Tokyo. For Yoshikawa, one of thousands of people who have come to rely on these spaces for accommodations, it meant losing his home.

"I don't know where to go. Libraries are closed, and even McDonald's closes at night due to the virus," he said. He has struggled to understand what government support, if any, is available to him.

"This anxiety makes me look away from the reality and robs me of the energy to crawl out of this situation," he said.

The pandemic has left many people in Tokyo struggling for money. Taxi driver Shigeo Oyama used to pick up white-collar workers on their way home from drinking in the upmarket Ginza district, but since the state of emergency began, the streets have been empty. His earnings have fallen by more than 30%.

"Even though my salary is decreasing, the bills won't wait," he said. "I have to pay my property and automobile taxes soon."

It could be worse. On April 8, Tokyo-based taxi company Royal Limousine fired almost all of its 600 employees. "Everyone in the taxi industry was talking about it," Oyama said.

Abe envisions a V-shaped recovery after the pandemic, but Oyama doubts that. "It will take a lot more time to get back to normal. Many people are trying to make it through by spending their savings now, so they won't consume like they used to. People won't use cabs even if the pandemic ends," he said.

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The uncertainty over how the state of emergency will develop, and how long the pandemic will last, has disrupted many lives. Joan Quitoriano, a migrant worker from the Philippines, said that both of her workplaces -- a hotel and a school -- are now shut, and she has had to reduce the amount of money she sends back to her family. "Next month, I don't know how to pay my bills," she said.

Quitoriano lost a friend in the U.K. to the virus and said that she is struggling with the sense of insecurity that comes with living in a foreign country during a crisis. The virus does not only harm the body, but also "mentally and emotionally hits you," she said. "You have to embrace whatever you have right now because you don't know what will happen on the next day."

Some residents have continued to go to work despite the restrictions on movement and worry that they are putting their lives at risk. One teacher working at a Tokyo nursery school, who asked to remain anonymous, said that all of her colleagues were afraid of infection before the school was closed in mid-April. While many workplaces have been shut, central and local governments have asked nurseries to stay open to support essential workers.

"There were parents who wanted to leave their children at the nursery just because they cannot concentrate on their work at home with them," the teacher said. "We stressed many times that even nurseries are not safe, and finally all the parents agreed to close the nursery." She herself was afraid of infecting her young daughter with the virus.

At the nursery, there are no surgical masks, sanitizer or thermometers. "I am doing the best I can now, but I am not sure if I can make the right decision every time I have to, because there's much uncertainty about the virus," she said. "The government seems to put the economy first over life, and I think it will be too late in the end." -- RURIKA IMAHASHI

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'I'm bored. I'm just stuck in my room in the boardinghouse all day'

JAKARTA -- Tifa Asrianti, 40, began 2020 with ambitious plans. Two years ago she left her office job to go freelance and was making a decent living doing translation, media monitoring and content writing. She was preparing to buy her first property, a studio apartment in Bekasi, in the suburbs of Jakarta, and to invest her extra income in the stock market. She even had a vacation in Canada booked.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put all of these on hold. Indonesia has already been hit hard by the virus, and some health experts fear that it could become a new center for the outbreak. The economic damage is also likely to be severe, with the International Monetary Fund predicting that the economy will grow just 0.5% this year.

Asrianti said she no longer plans to invest and will keep her cash in savings. The developer of the property she was purchasing has told her that it will no longer be ready on time. She is trying to get her money back, but it is proving hard. On April 10, the government ordered a shutdown of many businesses in Jakarta, and people are not responding to her requests.

"I thought, given the current market condition, some good locations may become more affordable," she said. "But how would I be able to properly check when everybody responds very slowly?"

The coronavirus situation has revived her memories of the Asian financial crisis and subsequent political upheaval in Indonesia in the late 1990s, during which time millions of people lost their jobs. She fears that the effects could be "stronger" now.

"But on the other hand, communications technology these days allows many people to do businesses online, to work from anywhere, from home -- so that could offer more opportunities than 1998," she added hopefully.

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Siti Royhan also counts herself as lucky. In her early 20s, Royhan works at a popular coffee-to-go chain that has set up hundreds of booths in major Indonesian cities in the past few years. She is stationed at a stall inside a crowded apartment complex in South Jakarta. So, despite reduced work from six to five days a week, and slightly shorter hours -- from 12 to 10 a day -- the booth has seen more customers than usual in recent weeks.

"I guess they're apartment residents who work from home," she said.

Still, Royhan said she's feeling sad. At least one of her friends working for the same coffee chain has been laid off, and another put on unpaid leave, as many booths in shopping malls and office buildings in Jakarta are forced to close under the partial lockdown measures.

"And I'm bored. I usually hang out with my friends on weekend -- went swimming or to the shopping malls, or watching movies at the cinema. But now, I'm just stuck in my room in the boardinghouse all day," she said. -- ERWIDA MAULIA

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'We are surviving through the day and then hanging around waiting to die'

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Before ride-hailing services Uber and Grab came to Ho Chi Minh City, Tran Van Phuc, 58, could make around 300,000 dong ($12) a day as a xe om, or motorbike taxi driver. Since the platforms set up in Vietnam, he has struggled to make half that. Most of his remaining customers are older people who have not taken to the apps.

The Vietnamese government imposed a lockdown across 12 provinces on April 1, attempting to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses have closed, and people are required to stay home except to buy groceries or in emergencies. That has left Tran without any income at all.

"I came home empty-handed yesterday," he told the Nikkei Asian Review, "and I don't know what is going to happen in the next few days. Shops and restaurants are closed, people stay at home, work from home -- but I still have to come and wait here, hoping someone will suddenly need to use my service."

Tran has had to turn to nongovernment organizations to get food for his family, along with many others whose street-level jobs -- lottery ticket sellers, shoeshiners and vendors -- have almost disappeared during the lockdown.

"Today, we are in the situation of surviving through the day and then hanging around waiting to die," he said. -- Nikkei staff writer.

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