New Delhi, India, 30 March. Day five of a countrywide lockdown to tackle the spread of the coronavirus. Already, our vocabulary has been emptied, and all that remains is grim pandemic jargon: social distancing, self-isolation, ventilators, PPE, hydroxychloroquine. But there’s one term that’s grabbing a disproportionate share of headlines and nervous social media conversations: community transmission.

Community transmission takes place when it is impossible to locate the source of an infection, meaning that it could have come from anywhere within the infected person’s wider community. Think of it as the virus waging guerrilla warfare wearing camouflage. In a country with 1.3 billion potential carriers, it is our healthcare system’s worst nightmare.

During the government’s daily press briefing, journalists grill senior bureaucrats whether the virus has infiltrated the community, given the growing number of cases in various pockets.

The answer is the same every day: no. Don’t panic. The community is safe.

But today, something in this predictable script snaps. Confronted once again, the bureaucrat in charge of the briefing breaks into a faint smile. he says. 

No one laughs.

Ten Indian men sit cross-legged in a group on dry grass, dressed in a yellow, blue and pink uniform, with pink tall hats (only one plays a clarinet or flute in a simple shirt); they are part of a wind instruments ensemble, and are playing trumpets, or drums. Up the hill in the background we see a mini van.
A wind instruments ensemble makes music by the Kansabati river. Medinipur, West Bengal, 2017. From the series PIK-NIK, by Arko Datto

In my country, community is everything

The battle against the coronavirus in the world’s second most populous country isn’t just to prevent it from infecting individuals. A more urgent battle is afoot to stop it and everything else it carries – fear, stigma, the breakdown of trust between people, and between people and the government, the destruction of entire ways of life – from breaching the community.

The community is the beating heart of my country. For outsiders, the scale of India can be daunting, impossible to grasp. The community is the social unit that makes India real. It’s the where every kid is called by their The gully where women feed the neighbourhood dogs the day’s leftovers. The hawking vegetables at the street corner. The that supplies staples to every household on credit. The milk booth where neighbours meet morning and evening. The club where jobless young boys spend their days playing carrom. 

Everything and everyone in India exists in intense proximity. That is its biggest strength, but, right now, also its greatest vulnerability. Once the chain of infection takes hold of the community, it is like fighting a million bushfires at once. Losing the community to the virus means losing India.

The consequences would be disastrous. Aside from the fact that because of its success in eradicating other deadly diseases, the country is simply too big. The ripple effects of an unchained infection among a billion-plus people would be felt far beyond our borders.

So, the community must be protected. We must build a wall between it and the virus. 

To do that, we need time. 

But even more crucially, we need space. 

Colour photograph of a group of people near the water. Some are standing while other are sitting on the group on blankets, others are arriving or living. The grond is covered by plastic plates and other white trash. In the background, a platform is floating on the water.
Colour photograph of a man sitting on gaz tank, his back to the water, while looking at the camera. He is wearing a beige t-shirt with something red written on it, grey bermuda pants covered with a piece of pink checked fabric and sandals coming off of his feet. He sits in front a a huge cocking pot. Around him on the muddy ground, are some plastic waste. A group of men are standing in the distance and a boat is floating near the shore.
Top: A crowded picnic spot in Chandil, Jharkhand, 2017. Bottom: Most picnic parties bring their own cooks along to prepare food on location. Banks of the Ichamati River, West Bengal, 2014. From the series PIK-NIK, by Arko Datto.

For most of India, space is an unthinkable luxury

The problem: we barely have any. In fact, "space" is almost a taboo word in India.

The key to understanding my country is to appreciate that we are such a delicate patchwork of disparate religions, languages and cultures that too much talk of space – of distance or difference – is perceived as a danger to our very integrity. 

Different nations are built on different mythologies. Our defining mythology is a billion people moving forward as one inseparable, vacuum-sealed mass. This spirit is baked into the national motto that every kid is taught in school:

Last month, when the prime minister appealed to the country to applaud our frontline workers, ecstatic crowds came out to the streets banging kitchen utensils, defeating the very point of social distancing. This is our default mode: together, rubbing body against sweaty body. By suddenly imposing the need for separation, the virus is forcing us to behave in unnatural ways – uncultural ways.

Worse, it is setting us up to chase something that just doesn’t exist for the vast majority of us.

Colour photograph of a group of men bending forward in a praying position. They all wear a white Taqiyah and stand on beige mats. Next to them are gaz tanks and big metallic pots. Trees and passerby are visible in the background.
Prayers before lunch. Chandernagore, 2015. From the series PIK-NIK, by Arko Datto.

Even if you aren’t among the chances are the concept of personal space is alien to you. Life gets more and more cramped as you go down the and socio-economic ladder. The poorest 20% of the country have access to per capita living space of just over 7sq metres in rural areas and just under 7sq metres in urban areas. (FYI: A jail cell requires a ground area of 8.9sq metres.)

According to the on average, an Indian household includes 4.8 members. But nearly Within the largest household unit tracked in the census – those with nine members or more, making up almost 7% of the total number of households in the country – 44% make do with zero to two rooms.

The jostle for space, the need to squeeze in two where one can barely fit, spills over into our public spaces. It is such a permanent reality in our bazaars, in our trains and our buses, that the quintessentially Indian icebreaker is simply: “Kindly adjust.”

Since the liberalisation of the economy in 1991, the fierce intimacy has diluted somewhat at least in our cities. Some of us have shifted to gated communities from We shop in malls instead of bazaars. But for most of India, space is still an unthinkable luxury.

Two women sit on the bow of a long fishing boat on the water, smiling, one with a plait, in white clothes, and with something in her hands which she looks at, her legs crossed at her bare ankles and feet. The oar is at rest behind her. There is tarpaulin covering the boat’s hull. The other woman, in a simple green, pink and purple shift, seems to have just left two heart-shaped red balloons into the air, her hand poised as she looks up at the sky. We see the horizon in the background.
Picnickers on a boat ride through the Sunderban tiger reserve. Koikhali, 2017. From the series PIK-NIK, by Arko Datto.

The community versus the individual

So, what happens when a country like this suddenly gets desperate for space? When you are constantly reminded that withdrawing from public spaces and maintaining distance from others is right now your greatest civic duty – a supreme act of patriotism and service to the community? 

Generations of Indians have been conditioned to believe that there’s no bigger honour than sacrificing personal autonomy at the altar of the “greater good”. This is the moment when that conditioning ought to kick in. If it doesn’t, you can be made to fall in line and made an example of. 

Over the past few days, as the government has gone about strictly enforcing the lockdown on a woefully unprepared population, India’s private citizens have repeatedly found themselves shouldering the burden of protecting the community at crushing personal cost. While the WHO has lauded India’s efforts as many argue that the state has used to ensure compliance with the world’s most sweeping Covid-19 lockdown.

Those who simply can’t afford to the country’s teeming migrant workers, daily wagers, even doctors – have been

In several places across the country, local governments have put up stigmatising stickers outside the houses of quarantined people. 

In Mumbai, people on home quarantine have had their arms stamped with the line:

In Bengaluru, the names, addresses, even passport details of those in quarantine were allegedly made public by the government in a bid to

In Delhi, the government has handed over the mobile numbers of  

It’s not always the government doing the enforcing. because they suspected he was planning to step out.

While surveillance succeeded in slowing down the pandemic in South Korea, the fear and the stigma in India are congealing into a frightening mental health crisis.

As always, the greatest indignities have struck the poorest. In Madhya Pradesh, a policewoman inscribed on the forehead of a labourer out on the streets: Stranded in our cities with no money, no food, no shelter, and no public transport, thousands of labourers have been forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to their hometowns, carrying their children on their backs. 

Last week, when the Delhi administration announced that they would provide buses so that people can make the journey back home, bus stations were clogged with massive crowds clambering for a seat inside the vehicles or on their roofs. 

When a group of migrant labourers finally managed to reach their destination in the state of Uttar Pradesh, they were herded like cattle and sprayed with disinfecting chemicals by officials wearing

As physician and bioethicist Anant Bhan put it: “The crisis has raised a critical question: what is the role of the government? The challenge for them is to figure out how to protect individuals while also saving the relatively more abstract idea called ‘community’.

What we have seen from the government response seems to be an attempt partly to shift the blame. Branding people in a way which could stigmatise and lead to discrimination is a poor way of doing public health. This kind of labelling patients or those with possible exposure to infection almost like criminals could backfire because it can push away people from reporting their illness.”

A group of people are walking alone or two by two, holding arms, in the water, pulling their colourful clothes up to their knees. A women is holding her shoes and a bag, a man in the background is carrying a child. We can see the beach and some greenery in the distance with other people standing around.

Three men are walking together on a gravel path. Some water and trees are visible in the background. The one in the middle wears jeans with a purple shirt. He looks at the camera, smiling slightly. The man on the left of the photograph looks at the camera with a small smile while holding the other man right arm at the rist with his two hands. The third man on the right of the frame looks down with a tiny smirk and he is holding the arm of the men in the middle.
Top: Women and children cross a shallow stream at low tide to get to the sand-heads on the other side. Bakkhali Sea Beach, West Bengal, 2015. Bottom: An inebriated man gets carried out to safety by friends. Medinipur, West Bengal, 2017. From the series PIK-NIK, by Arko Datto.

Space is a guilty desire

Meanwhile, for a section of India’s youth, the lockdown has triggered a different struggle. 

In the afternoon of 26 March, the second day of the lockdown, I received a private message on Twitter from a 25-year-old man from Gujarat. He told me he was struggling to cope with life in confinement, but his problem wasn’t isolation or loneliness. It was the exact opposite.

He wasn’t the only one to report feeling this way. Last week I received several messages from friends complaining about parents driving them “up the wall”.

Unlike it isn’t unusual in India to never leave your parents’ home or stay there well into adulthood. A survey in 2016 showed that Over 65% of India’s population is below 35 years of age, with an average age of about 29.

The lockdown and the overarching narrative of placing “the collective before the individual” has pushed many in this burgeoning group into feeling stressful, confusing emotions about the need for personal space.

As a culture, Indians have always looked at the concept of space very critically, says psychotherapist Meghna Mukherjee. Engagement is the norm, and demanding personal space is tainted as egocentric – a guilty indulgence. As a result, millennials in India have a complicated relationship with space. They are vocal about the need for it, but are still trapped in families where asking for space is labelled selfish – an affront against the traditional idea of the “good Indian”.

Now, with the state itself mandating social distancing as the ultimate moral behaviour, maybe they will finally learn to experience personal space guilt-free.

Meanwhile, for others, it will be the familiar feeling of “adjusting” to whatever tiny space is handed to them, stretched over an anxious, uncertain future.

 All in the name of community.

A group of men is pushing what seems to be a heavy truck filled with a elaborated sound system.
A heavy truck filled with elaborate sound systems is stuck on the soft sand and mud near the sea shore. South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, 2015. From the series PIK-NIK, by Arko Datto.
About the images In his series PIK-NIK (2013-2015) Indian photographer Arko Datto captures and explores the tradition of picnics and communal life in eastern India, which are far from a simple affair. Large groups of people get together, hiring busses and cooks to facilitate the events, preferably around the innumerable rivers traversing the landscape, from the Ganges downstream to the Rupnarayan, Icchamati and myriad other tidal rivers close to the Sunderbans. The extravagant loudspeakers and open-air-cooking that come with nearly every one of these social occurrences, are photographed by Datto so dynamically it almost feels like you’re able to join in the festivities. (Lise Straatsma, image editor)
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