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How COVID-19 is inflaming India’s social and religious tensions

India’s government has begun to relax its lockdown, though COVID-19 continues to spread there. The country has incurred massive economic and humanitarian losses and is still vulnerable to a devastating blow from the virus. Meanwhile, the pandemic is fomenting violence against health care workers and Muslims, whom many blame for spreading the disease. Special correspondent Neha Poonia reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, India's government began to relax one of the world's largest lockdown orders, even as cases continue to spike.

    Special correspondent Neha Poonia reports the outbreak has also led to a rise in attacks against Muslims, leading to a rare condemnation of the government there by the U.S.

  • Neha Poonia:

    A nation of 1.3 billion people under lockdown for 54 days, bustling cities turned into ghost towns overnight.

    Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unprecedented announcement to shut the country down when India only had 500 reported COVID-19 cases.

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi (through translator):

    The entire country shall go under complete lockdown. A full ban is being imposed on people from stepping out of their homes.

  • Neha Poonia:

    But implementing a complete lockdown in the world's second most populous country comes with many challenges.

    For the affluent, working from home is easy, but for millions of migrant and daily wage laborers, life came to a sudden standstill.

    As companies shut down and transport ground to a halt, migrant laborers found themselves on the streets, with no income and no money to buy food or pay rent.

    More than 1.4 million laborers were left stranded in Indian cities. And some had no other way but to walk and walk.

  • Banwari Lal (through translator):

    I slept on the road whenever I could. And one night, all my belongings were stolen. I had no food, no money, and no way to contact my family. I still didn't make it back home.

  • Neha Poonia:

    Banwari Lal and hundreds of other migrant laborers are now living in a make-shift government shelter in Delhi. It's one of 37,000 shelters set-up across the country.

    Here, these men and women have food on their plates, a roof over their heads and access to medical care. But in these cramped quarters, it's still impossible to keep a safe distance.

    Rina asked us to use her first name only. She's lived here for more than five weeks now, and she accuses the government of letting her down. She says, given some warning, she could have reached her village in time.

  • Rina (through translator):

    My family calls me everyday weeping uncontrollably. If my husband and I get COVID-19, how will they survive?

  • Neha Poonia:

    Rina is one of more than 140 million Indians who have lost their jobs during the lockdown.

    Unemployment is at a record high of 27 percent. And the shutdown is costing the Indian economy nearly $5 billion in losses every day. And it's not just the people at the bottom rung of India's economic ladder who have lost their livelihoods.

    In India's financial capital, Mumbai, marketing manager Kapil Tiwari has a job now, but doesn't know what tomorrow holds.

  • Kapil Tiwarir:

    Even my wife says, Kapil, how will you survive if your company asks you to stay at home? Then how will you survive? Because there are no jobs at present in the market.

  • Neha Poonia:

    A few miles away, a more immediate worry is brewing in Asia's largest slum. A million people live here cheek by jowl, often in tiny one-room houses. And more than 700 have tested positive for COVID-19.

    Authorities are struggling to impose social distancing and warn that the actual count might be exponentially higher. This small space is home to Vishal Dravider and his family. But it's impossible to stay indoors all the time. There's no running water and no toilet.

    Every trip outside the house is a risk.

  • Visha Dravider (through translator):

    At the community toilets, not all stalls have running water. There are usually long lines at the toilets too. Staying away from people in such circumstances is tough.

  • Neha Poonia:

    With its population density, the government realizes Dharavi is a ticking time bomb. Estimates show India could have more than one million COVID-19 cases by mid-May.

    Such a surge in infections will overwhelm public hospitals already grappling with a shortage of protective gear, ventilators and doctors. The Indian government says it's spending nearly $2 billion on strengthening the health care setup.

    While facilities are a concern, doctors say that the infection isn't the only thing that they're battling. Many health care workers have been attacked by angry neighbors who've accused doctors of being carriers of the virus.

    Dr. Sanjibani Panigrahi filmed this assault by her neighbor in March in the presence of her 3-year-old son.

  • Sanjibani Panigrahi:

    I think even animals don't attack each other like this without reason.

  • Neha Poonia:

    She's not alone.

    Dr. Sachin Nayak lived in his car for many days to keep his family safe. The toughest part? Not being able to see or hug his son.

  • Sachin Nayak (through translator):

    I'd never imagined a day would come where doctors who are trying to help keep people safe would be attacked. When such incidents happen, you feel extremely demoralized and demotivated. Every attack is a setback for India's fight against COVID-19 and is precious time lost.

  • Neha Poonia:

    Not just doctors, but public health experts and political critics say India needs to do more to keep its citizens safe, and that the window to do more is quickly shrinking.

    Social distancing and the extended lockdown are India's primary weapons against the pandemic. But with the government testing just over 800 people per million, experts warn it's not nearly enough.

    A major concern? Asymptomatic people who could spread the virus unknowingly. Not just a public health challenge, the COVID-19 outbreak is also exposing India's communal fissures. A gathering of Islamic preachers in New Delhi led to a huge spike in India's coronavirus cases in April.

    Many leaders of Prime Minister Modi's Hindu majority BJP Party blamed the rapid spread on Indian Muslims. Since then, many Muslims have been beaten up, others harassed and targeted online, accused of being carriers of the virus, including Rana Ayyub, who says the Indian government stands to gain from such a hate campaign.

  • Rana Ayyub (through translator):

    It is trying to obfuscate the truth by diverting the country's attention to communalization, to communalization of the virus.

    So, unfortunately, it has had an impact. You see middle-class narratives in India focusing on — focusing on Muslims being the villains. And is it not asking the questions of the government that need to be asked.

  • Neha Poonia:

    Critics have long accused India's ruling party of fomenting hate and inciting violence against minorities, especially Muslims, a charge the party denies.

    So, as India battles COVID-19, it's not just the lives of 1.3 billion people at stake, but also India's national unity.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Neha Poonia in Delhi.

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