I thought I would write a brief report on how the progress of covid-19 is affecting life in Tiruvannamalai. It is aimed at devotees and friends who might be wondering how we are faring. Even though I live in Tiruvannamalai, I have been finding it hard to get good, reliable local news. I assume that other people who are interested in what is going on here are experiencing the same difficulties.
When the most recent lockdown period ended on May 3rd, Tiruvannamalai District had about fifteen known cases. That was quite a good score since the district is about 90km across. One of its corners extends about two thirds of the way to Chennai. Those relatively low numbers got us an ‘orange’ district classification, a status that allowed more shops and businesses to open. Red zone districts have major outbreaks and lots of restrictions. Green zones are mostly free of cases and have fewer rules. Whatever category you are in, there is no permitted travel between districts unless you are an essential worker. Public buses and trains have all stopped.
On May 3rd the Tiruvannamalai District numbers had been static for over two weeks, with no new cases since the middle of April. The lockdown category rules stated that orange districts which had had no new cases for twenty-one days could be reclassified as ‘green’. Unfortunately, our numbers suddenly doubled after about sixteen days of remaining the same. When I checked to find out the reason, I discovered that the government had arranged for many local people, who had been trapped in nearby cities, to return to their home towns and villages. The people getting off the government buses that shipped them home were all tested and a significant number turned out to be positive. Although this blew our chances of getting into the green zone, our risk of catching the virus was not increased since all the positive cases were taken to government hospitals to be quarantined and treated. This government sponsored repatriation seems to indicate that there are many covid-19 cases in the big cities who have yet to be discovered and tested.
Since then, though, a new and more serious threat has materialised. A huge wholesale vegetable market in Chennai has become a super-spreader site. The Koyambedu market services most of northern Tamil Nadu. Vans travel outwards from the city loaded with produce, and many unemployed people in the northern districts go there to find casual work. Since the vans and their occupants are classed as essential workers, they were not stopped or tested on their trips to and from Chennai. In recent days hundreds of cases in northern Tamil Nadu have been traced to this market. Most of the new confirmed Tamil Nadu cases from the last three days (527, 508 and 771) can be attributed to people who went to this market and then brought the infection back to their home towns and villages. The government is actively trying to trace all these people, along with all their recent contacts. Cuddalore District was very badly hit. So many returning workers tested positive there, its recorded cases went from about 30 to 140 overnight.
There are thirty-seven districts in Tamil Nadu. Tiruvannamalai District is currently ranked 24th on the list:
The figures are a little out of date. Since they were published, Tiruvannamalai District has had its first fatality, a 55-year-old woman who died in the local government hospital. She had been having treatment for covid-19 there and had seemingly recovered. However, she had a heart-attack before being discharged and died after testing negative for the virus.
If you live in the US or Europe, those figures probably look quite good. Indian deaths are still only one per million of population. The equivalent figures for the US, Spain, Italy and the UK are 226, 553, 491 and 443 respectively.
Meanwhile, back in Tiruvannamalai …
Ramanasramam closed its gates in the middle of March. Only residents and workers are allowed in. Everyone is healthy there, according to the most recent reports I have received. We are allowed out to shop for essentials such as food and medicine. Petrol is also available. Traffic outside the ashram is almost exclusively two-wheelers. It is quite nostalgic for me to experience such a low level of traffic. It hasn’t been that quiet for decades.
At the beginning of the lockdown in March and early April the main food markets were moved to a big open space on the far side of town, near to the junction where the Vellore Road branches off. Shoppers were compelled to go through tunnels where they were sprayed with disinfectant before they were allowed into the shopping areas. The entrance had the following text, written in Tamil: ‘Ulley vaaaa… nee varriyaa … illa naan varatta?’ It was an invitation from the virus and translates (more or less) as, ‘Come inside, [and get disinfected] or shall I come out and get you?’
The tunnels were abandoned when it was discovered that they were dangerous to people with certain medical conditions. And, apparently, they didn’t actually work. Nowadays, I get my fruit and vegetables from sellers who spread out their wares by the side of the road that runs past Ramanasramam.
In addition to being a shopping thoroughfare and the main route to Bangalore, this is, of course, part of the Arunachala pradakshina (girivalam) road. Today is the full moon known as Chitra Poornima. Usually this would attract at least a hundred thousand pilgrims who would come from all over the state to walk around the mountain. In recent years this has become the second-most highly attended full moon after Kartikai Deepam. This year there will be no one on the road since the government has banned pilgrims from attempting the walk. It is the second consecutive full moon that the road around the mountain will be empty and silent.
This is how Car Street, the main street in Tiruvannamalai town, normally looks on a poornima pradakshina. Not a lot of social distancing going on.
Since many people reading this will be foreign or foreign-based devotees of Sri Ramana, I will add a few sentences about the visa rules. Those who are still in India and who are unable to leave because all outgoing flights have been cancelled can extend their visas online free of charge. The extension will be valid until thirty days after after regular outgoing flights are resumed. When might that be? Our current lockdown will continue till May 17th. Air India has published a tentative skeleton schedule that will start after May 17th, if the government gives permission for flights to resume. I would say that this is a highly optimistic schedule. I think it is extremely unlikely that there will be any resumption of scheduled international flights in the next month. Devotees who want to enter India and have visas that would, ordinarily, let them in, will not be allowed to enter the country. The central government has ‘suspended’ the validity of all these visas, meaning they cannot be used to enter India until the suspension is lifted. The ban on people entering the country also extends to Indians who have OCI status. A full list of all the current rules and regulations was updated and published on May 5th.
I will conclude by mentioning one rather poignant story. In the early days of the pandemic many local people thought that all Chinese people were carriers of the virus. A Chinese visitor, in India to study yoga, found himself homeless in Tiruvannamalai because no one wanted to offer him any accommodation. Eventually, lacking any alternative, he took up residence in a cave on Arunachala. He walked down the hill each day to buy food and drinking water. His situation eventually attracted the attention of the local authorities who took him to the local hospital and tested him. His results were negative. With a certificate to prove his uninfectiousness, he was able to find somewhere to live once he left the hospital. His story was reported here.
I am beginning to enjoy the solitude of the forced quarantine although, like everyone else, I will be happy when it is over. The summer temperatures have been below average, with no major heat waves so far. One problem with the lockdown is that virtually nothing mechanical is fixable. We all have our fingers crossed that our machinery (computers, phones, plumbing, vehicles, fans, internet, and so on) will continue to function since none of the technicians and mechanics who usually deal with them are open for business. My garden is still providing fruit and vegetables, water still comes out of the bore well, and the sun continues to provide me with enough solar power to have a comfortable life. I consider myself fortunate that I am not in lockdown in a big city, and even more fortunate that I am negotiating the drama at the foot of Arunachala.