‘Covid Ruined My Life, Not Physically But Financially’

Imran Malik, who owned modular kitchen business in Delhi, says middle class families are the worst affected by the pandemic, and slowly slipping into the poverty pit

I started out as a karigar (craftsman) and slowly rose up the ranks. In 2015, I was lucky enough to start my own small business called Malik Aluminium Decoration. A major chunk of our business was focussed on building modular kitchen fittings. I took the first few years to break even and just as our business was picking up, the pandemic struck.

As I look around, I see almost everyone in the same position. People are just about managing, and their patience is being tested to the extreme by Covid circumstances. Unemployment is rife, future is uncertain and the market is stagnant. Our family finances have dwindled too and only God knows what’s in store for us. The pandemic situation keeps changing every few days, but the stress is constant.

I am a part of a large joint family with five brothers and our mother. My father passed away many years ago and since then my elder brother and I have served as the financial backbone of the large family. But the spine is beginning to crack now.

Malik’s labour-intensive work suffered when his employees left for their native places during lockdown

When the first lockdown was announced, we thought it would only be a matter of a few months and our savings would see us through. None of us was prepared for the lasting impact. I had taken a shop on rent at a prime location in Laxmi Nagar (East Delhi), but when business didn’t pick up even two months after the Unlock, I had to let go of the space. Shifting of raw material, storage also incurred costs.

In the first wave of the pandemic, most of my karigars left for their native places. Whatever little work orders I received, I had not enough people to work on them. My work is labour-intensive. The few karigars that remained with us, I paid their full salary, work or no work. It breaks my heart to see that they are in an even more difficult position than I am.

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The second wave was worse. My sister-in-law got infected and we had arrange oxygen cylinders at a premium. I pray that no one else gets the virus, because apart from the emotional toll it takes on us, the financial impact is also difficult to recover from.

I shudder at the thought of the third wave as people’s finances are stretched beyond limits now. The thing that mattered to us the most: the education (and subsequent employment) of our younger brothers and children, have been put on hold. Studying at home isn’t the same as studying in school.

I feel the middle class is in the most difficult position. Unlike those who truly are living a hand to mouth existence, we don’t want to take recourse to Public Distribution Schemes and unlike the rich, we don’t have fat bank balances. The government must come out with some support for the middle class too. If the government does not take steps on urgent footing, many families will slide into poverty and apart from the physical health, the emotional health of the country will also be in turmoil. I hope we see better days soon.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘Covid Fear Made Me See Mall Customers As Live Viruses’

Meera Singh, 36, who worked as a cashier at an upscale shopping mall in Gurgaon, explains why she quit her job in Delhi-NCR and went to her native place in Deoghar

I moved to Delhi-NCR in 2007, and in 2015 I joined Sapphire Mall, Gurugram as a cashier for a boutique with international clientele. Besides managing the clients, I handled their GST and other finance-related bills for the boutique. It was a comfortable job till the pandemic struck in March 2020. In June the same year, I decided to quit, and return to my native place in Deoghar (Jharkhand). In spite of several calls to rejoin work, I have no plans to return to Delhi. Let me explain why.

When the pandemic struck, no one had any idea what was going on or what was the way forward. We wondered what the future held finance-wise or when the lockdown would get over. From March 23 (when the lockdown was announced) until June we were on tenterhooks.

Even when the Unlock began, and I rejoined work, it was stressful. In every shopper who came in I saw a potential virus carrier. And since I was the one at the forefront handling cash (cash would be transferred from one hand to another) I felt I was under a lot of risk. Our international clientele base (mainly NRIs) also left me worried, because it were people who travelled from the West to India were considered the biggest risks.

Even though we followed all Covid protocols to the tee, like regular sanitisation, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, the virus was making its way into people’s lungs and lives. The media reports of crowded hospitals and overflowing crematoriums made it worse. With the constant pressure of staying safe in a public place, the stress soon began to tell.

Finally when talks of a pay-cut began doing the rounds, my husband and I decided it was not worth the risk. The pandemic had taught us about the fragility of life; I didn’t want to be away from my children, who were with their grandparents, or my ageing parents and in-laws anymore.

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First my husband, an engineer, left for our hometown and I followed shortly after on June 21. It required some effort to manage a seat on the flight from Delhi to Patna. A fortnight was spent in quarantine and then I started thinking about the future. With my expertise in handling retail business at a big mall in a big city, I decided to start my own retail business.

In September 2020, I opened up a small unit that sell cosmetics, and other knick-knacks. I feel I am more in control here because unlike in Gurugram, people who come to my shop are part of a tight-knit community and listen to us more readily when we suggest they follow Covid measures. Plus, you feel secure that your family is right there and you don’t need to travel (which is a huge fight in itself in these times) anywhere. And most importantly, I get to be with my children every day. There’s no wealth in the world bigger than the health and happiness of your kids and other family members.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh