The necessary—and the bizarre—Covid-19 habits Indians picked up a year since the lockdown

One year and six-feet apart.
One year and six-feet apart.
Image: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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A year ago, on March 25, 2020, my home had no masks. It was the first day of India’s complete Covid-19 lockdown, and the reality of what “stay at home” meant was to sink in.

It was the first day of many habits—some outlandish and others rational—that would change how Indians live and socialise. And the first of these was to buy masks. We bought three masks for the three people in our home. There was nowhere to go, not even for groceries, so these mostly lay in their packaging for nearly a month. At the time, no one knew what masks really did, how often one should wash them, and which ones to buy.

This was the beginning of the pandemic, also a time when my friends and I had made bets about when normal life would resume. The most pessimistic among us had put their bet on June end. Once the government kept extending the lockdown, it became clear that instead of hoarding groceries, it was time to hoard hand sanitizers, sprays, and masks.

Today, we have at least five masks per person, given that reusable ones need to be washed every time they are worn. There’s also a box of medical masks for visits to the doctor’s clinic, banks, or other crowded spaces.

At the time, cotton face coverings seemed most comfortable for India’s scorching heat, but others in the family had different ideas. “I can’t breathe,” complained my 64-year-old aunt over the phone. So she went and bought herself an anti-pollution mask that had exhalation valves. These are a bad idea during a pandemic given that the valves don’t prevent droplet transmission. A year on, she continues to wear the mask with a valve.

The vegetable and fruit worrier

Masks were not the only worry. Another aunt, a 56-year-old homemaker, had also frantically called me in April 2020 asking how to disinfect fruit and vegetables. “You know, we are very careful, but I don’t know if these vegetable vendors are masking up,” she said, blissfully unaware of her class privilege. None of my reassurances that it would be just fine if she simply washes the vegetables properly and peels the fruit as usual worked.

The next day, I found a photo on a family WhatsApp group where she had proudly displayed a bucket full of vegetables floating in frothy soap water. “Doctors say soap kills coronavirus, no need for anything else,” she wrote. She kept up this routine for a month, despite several warnings from family members that vegetables and fruits are porous and can soak up the soap. She eventually gave it up fully by June, when India’s economy began to “unlock” and she believed not everything caused Covid-19.

The extra mile with Covid-19 precautions

In Delhi’s Rohini, the Gupta family had set up an elaborate routine for any outsiders visiting their home. The large iron gate was to be opened with a small bamboo stick kept expressly for that purpose. Once anyone entered that gate, two large pots of water and a steel glass would greet them. Visitors had to wash their footwear before reaching the next level.

At the next level, the doormat was drenched in disinfectant, on which washed footwear would then land next. While hand sanitisers were the norm, service staff were also handed out face shields and sprayed down with a disinfectant. “We have elderly people in the family, and didn’t want to take any risks,” says Manan Gupta, a 28-year-old banker.

Some relics of last year’s lockdown have still remained, such as the disinfectant-soaked doormat. “See, new information keeps coming in. At the time, it felt like anything could give you Covid-19,” he says.

This was true for many people, especially after reports that the novel coronavirus could live on surfaces for up to 72 hours.

Leaving delivery packages out

In Gurugram, the glitzy town on the outskirts of Delhi, those living in apartments had decided that their Amazon packages needed to be aired for at least 24 hours before they were safe to be brought in. Shivika Srivastava, a digital marketer, made her Instagram stories a place to showcase her elaborate sanitisation routine. She would ask the delivery executive to leave the package outside her door. Said package would then stay outside her door for a day, after which time she would mask up, wear surgical gloves, and carry disinfectant spray to hose down the packages. Only then would these packages make it inside.

“It was paranoia, we knew so little about the virus! I mean look at the situation now, there are so many cases. But now I simply spray the packet and bring it in. The 24-hour package quarantine sounds so funny now,” Srivastava says.

But other habits, which emerged out of the fear of Covid-19, have stuck on.

Socially distant, at all times

When Vartika Kochhar found out she got a promotion this month at work, she ran towards her parents’ room excitedly. “But I made sure I wore a mask first,” she said. Her parents saw her joy and sprung up from the bed to share her joy with elbow bumps. “They’ve got their first vaccine dose, and I will not risk a Covid-19 now after a year of being so careful,” she says.

Others seem to be sick of this social behaviour.

At the bank, our neighbour recognised us a full 10 minutes after sitting across us from the lounge table. “I didn’t know it was you because of the mask,” he said, lowering his and indicating that my father lowers his too. Though my glare brought my father’s face mask back to where it belonged, the friendly neighbour had decided he had enough.

What ensued was a Covid-19 dance—him walking right up to us, us taking five steps back. It was becoming tragicomical, till I had to step in and spell it out for the elderly neighbour. Covid-19 fatigue, for many people, is very real.