The lockdown, spike in cases, and unaffordable rents are some of the reasons for people to leave the city.

A checkpost with long queue of vehiclesImage for representation
Coronavirus Coronavirus Thursday, June 18, 2020 - 19:09

For the past two days, scores of cars and two wheelers have been in a hurry to get out of Chennai. At the checkposts in Vandaloor, Paranur and Shollavaram, the police officials tasked with checking whether those who want to leave Chennai, have an e-pass. While some do, many others don’t and are basically trying to get out of the city by convincing the policemen, before the complete lockdown comes into place on Friday. 

The reason for this exodus out of the city: fear of COVID-19, and loss of livelihood that has made living in the capital city difficult for many. While many people have gone out of the city, others have shifted to its outskirts. 

Lakshmi and her family decided to move out of their Royapuram home and into her mother’s house in Avadi as they were afraid they would contract the novel coronavirus if they stayed in their crowded locality. 

“A person in the house across from us tested positive for coronavirus,” Lakshmi says, “Now, the street should have been turned into a containment zone, but it wasn’t, since only one person tested positive. It was not guarded by police personnel and people were moving in the street with no masks. Elderly people were spending time with infants at the door steps of their houses. People were leading their normal life brushing aside the fear of COVID-19, but that did not happen in my case.”

The fear of contracting the infection stressed Lakshmi and still she stayed there with her husband and her seven-year-old kid – until another neighbour got a fever, and her husband started showing signs of COVID-19 as well. “My husband went to a fever clinic and the doctor said that he shows coronavirus symptoms – but they denied there was any need for a test,” Lakshmi says. That’s when she decided to leave.

“The fever reduced in five days and he is recovering from the body ache. But now we have shifted to my mother’s home near Avadi,” she says.

In Nikhita’s (name changed) case, too, it was the fear of contracting the disease that made the family move from Vepery to OMR. The fact that Nikhita is seven months pregnant, and the family of five has two octogenarians spurred them more. As cases are comparatively low near OMR and ECR, the family shifted to a house in OMR despite rents skyrocketing.

The family booked a house for Rs 30,000 per month, and shifted within a day. Recollecting the decision, Nikhitha says, “We couldn't stay in Royapuram zone as the number of cases keeps increasing day by day. I was living with my parents and grandparents in Vepery and there were four cases in my street. My grandparents and parents are diabetic patients and have been taking medicines for the past few years. Since we are all vulnerable, we were afraid of staying in the containment zone. Hence we decided to move.”

Explaining that living in the containment zone gave her mental trauma, Nikhitha says, “I am seven months pregnant and need to stay in a healthy environment until my delivery. However, we underwent a lot of mental stress, and I had days when I could not sleep the entire night. Our area is always crowded with people who do not follow any guidelines given by the government to safeguard themselves from COVID-19 and we still live in fear.” 

The exodus of people was also because many were not able to pay the rent due to salary cuts. Many of the houses that are vacant in the city are the homes vacated by the IT employees, so the rent is very high, says Nikhitha. “Most of my friends who faced salary cuts or lost jobs have left for their hometown,” she adds.

People move to native places to escape COVID-19 and lockdown

The Tamil Nadu government had initially said that there will be no lockdown and the person who spreads rumours about a lockdown online will face legal action. However, on Monday, the government officially announced that the Greater Chennai police limit and parts of Chengalpattu and Thiruvallur will be under lockdown from June 19 to June 30.

As soon as the information started spreading on instant messaging apps, more people decided to leave the city. 

Viswa (name changed) and his family of five decided to leave Chennai to their village in Tiruvannamalai even before the official order of the lockdown period was announced. Viswa received the information about the possible lockdown from a friend who works in the government, he says. He immediately applied for an e-pass. However, the application got rejected.

“I have a two-year-old son and I cannot stay here during the lockdown. So overnight we decided to travel and I started my car in the wee hours. We also hired an additional vehicle since five of us cannot travel in one car. On the way, I was pretty tense that I might be stopped for interrogation but the police left us in most places. Hence, I safely reached Tiruvannamalai with my family last week,” says Viswa.

As of Thursday morning, 6,57,399 people were arrested and released on bail for violating the lockdown rules by moving within the city in vehicles since the beginning of the lockdown period in March. Over 4,78,714 vehicles were seized and 6,08,791 cases were registered against the violators. The Tamil Nadu government has also collected Rs 13.38 crore in fines for failing to follow the rules.  

Warning of strict action during the intensive lockdown period, Chennai city Commissioner AK Viswanathan addressing the media on Thursday said that 288 plazas will be set up within Chennai alone to check the violators of the coronavirus norms. He said that the people failed to take things seriously since they were warned verbally and later excused.

The vehicles were waiting for nearly two kilometers in the Paranur toll plaza, say reports.

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