CHENNAI, India — I grab my grandfather’s cellphone to call the corner shop and make sure it’s open, but before I hear the grocer’s voice, I hear a loud, off-putting cough.
That was the abrupt start of a pre-recorded government PSA. The phone message listed off symptoms of Covid-19 — including that cough — and offered guidance for anyone suspecting they or someone they knew was infected. Only then would the call go through.
Similar alerts have been sent to people’s cellphones in places like Washington, D.C., and the New York metro area, and the Federal Communications Commission has authorized some health providers and government entities to issue Covid-19-related communications without seeking prior approval. But I find it difficult to imagine that a nationwide PSA like the one in India will show up on every single U.S. phone number. In fact, during a recent 11-day trip to see family in India, I found it striking that the country of more than 1 billion people, which has not yet seen the scale of Covid-19 that the U.S. is experiencing, seemed to be doing far more to monitor its citizens and educate people about the risk of the virus and ways to protect against it.
This automatic phone message seemed especially savvy because not everyone in India has access to reliable internet, but almost everyone seems to own a cellphone. At any given time, the script would play in English, Hindi, or Tamil, the local state language. Even landlines weren’t exempt: The dial tone on my grandparents’ phone was temporarily replaced with the same PSA.
Even before I arrived in India, I could tell that this was going to be an unusual trip. As the Covid-19 case count increased each day in the U.S., my parents peppered me with questions daily about whether I was still planning to make the journey to the other side of the world. “Yes,” I firmly responded every time. I wanted to see my octogenarian grandparents and I was eager to visit an aunt whose husband — a beloved uncle of mine — had died last fall. It was a trip I had to make.
I’ve taken more than a dozen flights back to India since moving to the U.S. in 2003, but this one was like no other. My terminal at Boston’s Logan International Airport was quieter than usual, and almost everyone waiting to board the 13-hour flight to Dubai was wearing a mask (though not me, as my understanding had been that healthy people needn’t wear one). Once on board, I got an entire row to myself, not because the airline was enforcing physical distancing but because seemingly fewer people were flying given the uncertain circumstances. On my flight from Dubai to Chennai, there were even more masked passengers.
Arriving in Chennai, the airport had already swung into action with measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, even though, at that point, the country had only reported 62 cases and no deaths.
Immediately upon deplaning, masked airport staff handed each of us forms to self-report any Covid-19 symptoms and our travel history. There was then a mad dash to find the closest flat surface — everything from the nearest wall to the tops of carry-on luggage. We proceeded to the end of the hallway, where officials seated at kiosks aimed thermometers at each passenger’s forehead from an arm’s length, checked over our completed forms, and gave us the go-ahead to proceed to immigration.
There were several posters throughout the arrival hallways about the new “Corona virus” (styled as two words), informing passengers about hand-washing and precautions the Airport Authorities of India was taking. I hadn’t seen any such signage at Logan.
This would be a continuing theme during my trip. At every turn, there were reminders and warnings of coronavirus — something I had not seen back home in Boston.
Out to dinner with my cousin one night, we had to have our temperature checked before we could enter the restaurant, located within a large hotel. At a local supermarket, before I could pick up a basket or pull out a shopping cart, a security guard offered me some hand sanitizer and checked my temperature.
One afternoon, for a change of scenery, I took my grandparents for a drive along one of the most popular beaches in town, and we were greeted with a giant screen and loudspeaker playing Covid-19-related PSAs. The videos ranged from a news-style short busting common myths about Covid-19 (which run rampant on WhatsApp), animations showing the importance of using soap and hand sanitizer, and a comedy sketch on proper hand-washing technique and the need to stay indoors.
On the way home from the beach, I heard similar messages playing from an auto rickshaw, with an amplifier attached to its roof, that was parked across the street from a major bus terminus. Hundreds of people that evening likely heard the government’s messages about Covid-19.
All of these observations were based on my visit to a single city in India, albeit the country’s sixth-largest, according to the latest census. But watching the local news gave me the sense that similar measures were being enacted throughout India. And local, state, and federal authorities posted regular updates on their respective social media pages (mostly Twitter) about constantly changing regulations and policies.
The country’s ability to put out the message may also reflect a government that is much more restrictive than the United States.
The authorities here were aggressively cracking down on what could be reported about the outbreak in India, who could report on it, and who could speak to reporters. India has a system of socialized medicine, and government hospitals and research institutions are largely undertaking all Covid-19 response efforts (private hospitals are slowly joining in to keep up with demand). Only select authorities at these facilities are allowed to comment. Foreign journalists — including me — are largely not allowed to report on the situation in India, and those who are allowed had to seek special visas and permission to do so. I was instructed by the Ministry of External Affairs that I couldn’t write anything while I was there nor could I speak to anyone. Only now that I’m back am I more free to write about what I observed.
Such restrictions have drawn the ire of local journalists, who have criticized the lack of transparency and complained that questions posed by reporters during press briefings with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare aren’t being answered.
Yet for all my concerns about red tape, perhaps there is something to be said for the government’s tendency to unilaterally undertake such sweeping measures in the name of staunching the coronavirus. Soon after I got to Chennai, malls, theaters, schools, and many places of worship both in my hometown and in other parts of the country had been ordered to close. Back in the U.S., however, things were markedly different. Washington state, parts of California, and other U.S. cities had taken action to restrict the movement of its citizens, but most places were still waiting to see if the case count would increase before implementing widespread distancing measures. When the case count was nearing 100 in Massachusetts alone, public schools were still debating whether to shut down or continue having students come in.
Two days after I landed in India, the country placed a temporary ban on foreign nationals entering the country, since most cases were being imported. Other countries hit hard by Covid-19 waited much longer to implement such a measure, if at all.
On March 19, four days before I was scheduled to return to the U.S., officials announced that, beginning March 22, international flights would no longer be allowed in the country and outgoing international flights were also canceled. I scrambled to find a flight back, and with six hours’ notice, was given a ticket on one of the last flights out of India. And earlier this week, India’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. The U.S., for instance, has yet to implement such a stringent measure, and lockdowns thus far are only being placed jurisdiction by jurisdiction, and often after community transmission has already been documented.
It remains to be seen whether India’s preventive measures will work as planned — I landed there in mid-March to fewer than 70 cases and zero deaths, but that has since gone up to more than 700 cases and 20 deaths, and experts believe that the real number is much higher. For those of us who are familiar with India, it’s perhaps obvious why strict — and early — steps had to be taken: With nearly a fifth of the world’s population and a poor public health infrastructure, Covid-19 would very quickly overwhelm an already burdened system.
The peace of mind I had from the phone PSAs and other government measures I was surrounded with in India quickly dissipated when I came back to the U.S. last weekend aboard a packed flight with Americans and Canadians trying to make it back to North America.
Before arriving back at Logan, I was handed a health disclosure form similar to the one I filled out in India two weeks before. I filled it out, reporting no symptoms, and proceeded through immigration and customs, waiting for a temperature check and someone to collect the form since it included a section that had to be filled out by an official. Neither happened. I saw one poster about hand-washing during my time in the arrival halls, and there was no information provided to travelers about self-quarantining or isolation.
I’m self-isolating now for two weeks and haven’t ventured out to the grocery store, but I’m told that there are no temperature screenings. And, certainly, there are no security guards waiting to squirt sanitizer into your hands before you touch anything.