Be wary: Bangalore’s Covid-19 spread could trigger an avalanche of national cases

Vidhan Soudha | Source: Avinash Bhat, Flickr
A dark shadow looms | Source: Avinash Bhat, Flickr

On March 9 the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Bangalore, Karnataka. A case in the nerve-center of the city, its tech-hub, Whitefield, is a testament to the city’s attraction to anything with exponential growth.

While I don’t cover the medical precautions and measures taken to curtail the spread and treat the infected, I try to lay down my understanding of how Bangalore’s urban infrastructure will cause a wider spread, rather than help to curtail it. Many of the examples can directly be linked to other cities of the size and population of Bangalore, but some points may be unique.

Since the overseas cases began piling up, particularly in South Korea, Italy and Iran, and domestically, in India’s capital, New Delhi, Bangalore was sure to be hit. A relatively small city, compared to its metropolis counterparts, the capital of Karnataka is not only the epicenter of state-legislation but also an air-traffic gateway into Indian’s most successful businesses.

Given the domestic and international movement of people within and through Bangalore, its prospects of a Covid-19 case among its inhabitants were high. That being said, why should we look at the first Bangalore case with more caution that other cases throughout the country?

The ethos of Bangalore, at least in its more recent past, is one where a virus, especially one as deadly and contagious as Covid-19 has a highway to spread. And unlike the Silk Board Junction, this spread will revel in the overflow of people and cars, and not get halted by it.

A significant chunk of the skilled and unskilled population in Bangalore has migrated from all corners of India. Not leaving a state unsettled in the city, panic among the populace will lead to homecoming or rather home-going. Distressed residents fearing an outbreak will immediately flee the city, back home. With improper checks in place at transit outposts like railways, bus stations, and even airports, this will inevitably lead to a micro-spread of the disease domestically.

Most workplaces in Bangalore are clustered together, making the spread even more likely. The first Covid-19 patient from Bangalore contracted the disease while on a trip to Houston, Texas. His place of work - a tech-park in Whitefiled. Every corner of the city has such“tech-parks” where companies are bundled together in tight spaces, with common canteens and parking facilities making the spread more likely.

Bangalore’s large migrated population isn’t restricted to IT professionals. It cuts across pay-grades. With exponential growth, Bangalore has become a trove for the service industry, often employing cheap-labor at low costs. This cheap labor comes from across the country, creating networks for the disease’s contraction, and spread. Like a network, these laborers emanate from a common town, live together in shoddy and cramped facilities, causing the spread even more likely. Further, due to financial constraints, and medical illiteracy, even if such a worker displays symptoms, they will be less likely to self-quarantine [space constraints, where will the others live?], or admit themselves to a hospital [cost and loss of pay in the interim].

The likelihood of a sick patient continuing work is high, and those that work front-facing service jobs [waiters, cashiers, hosts] can cause a direct spread to customers, amplifying the network. Bangalore is often called the ‘pub capital’ of India, and for good measure. The Hindu reported that the number of RVB [retail vend of beer] licenses permitting establishments to operate as pubs issued, issued between 2014–2018 rose by 50.9 percent. The increase in both the professional population with higher disposable income and migrants offering cheap labor has contributed to the growth of such establishments and can form an on-ramp for the disease.

Commute is another issue. Due to overwhelming traffic and poor road maintenance, public transport is often preferred over individual car ownership. The state of Karnataka has the highest road tax in the country, for vehicles below INR5 lakhs, further preventing ownership. This has allowed cab-aggregators like Ola and Uber to dominate the market. A Business Standard report stated that in 2017, Bangalore and Hyderabad notched the highest number of Uber trips compared to all Indian cities. There is no standard or adequate measure for the cab’s maintenance or sanitation by either the aggregator or the driver. To put a commuter, with no other transport alternate, in a confined space with an unknown person for a few hours every day, while a fatal and contagious disease is prevalent, is a grim predicament. Further, most cab-facilities are on a carpool basis, increasing the unknown from a factor of 1 to possibly 4. Corporate cab-facilities offer the same service and present the same threat.

Services that aggregate human activities are not limited to movement, in Bangalore, they are the life-blood of the city. With many companies opting for mandatory work-from-home, employees, unfamiliar or unable to cook will opt for the convenient and competitive option of food delivery. Swiggy, Zomato, Dunzo, FreshMenu, FoodPanda, and others accelerate this function, but cannot medically set a standard of the food. It is certain that there will be a jump in the number of food deliveries, despite the quality and contagion hesitation. With medical professionals, the world over, advising minimal contact between hands and mouth, consuming food that is made by an unknown and delivered by an unknown, all through uncovered and [probably] unwashed hands, is only going to accelerate the spread.

One of the measures to ward off the virus could conversely cause a contraction in the city. Physical fitness while improving immunity, done through the popular group-classes could serve as a gateway for more cases. The growth of Cult.Fit, by the Bangalore-based start-up Cure.Fit now has over 50 centers in the city alone. The ethos of their service is a collective and common workout, in a variety of formats, from weight-training to yoga. Even with precautionary moves like wiping down mats, cleaning towels and immediate throw-away of used tissues, the proximity of people in the classes will cause an easy spread. Further, the sign-in system is biometric fingerprint-based, another potential platform.

Bangalore is the epitome of invention and innovation, but most of that innovation is centered around giving up daily functions to those that do it for a fee, for the sake of convenience. It is this very convenience done by unknown parties that will be a bridge for the spread of the Covid-19. Unless nipped in the bud quickly, the virus has ample contagion constructs in the city, and once it starts, who knows how fast it will spread?

I don’t mean to be an alarmist. But it’s hard not to be worried.

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