'All the hotels and restaurants from where I used to eat have been shut. I used to beg but now there is no one to give me alms too'
"Self-quarantining ourselves is a luxury homeless like us cannot afford," believes 68-year-old Rupa who has been living on the streets of Delhi-NCR for as long as she can remember.
Rupa, currently living near a Noida metro station, says she does not understand everything happening around her -- whether it is empty roads or closure of most shops -- but what she does realise is that there is a disease which has forced people to stay indoors.
"But self-quarantining ourselves is a luxury homeless like us cannot afford," she said.
Asked if she worries about being infected with the virus, Rupa casually replies that she has seen worse and for her it is nothing more than a flu.
"Getting food is a major concern for me not this (coronavirus)," she said.
"I went to a shelter home but I got scared that I will catch some other disease there," said Rupa who refused to give details of the shelter home where she was taken.
At some distance, Ghanshyam, another homeless in his late 40s, explains how procuring food has been the biggest challenge for him in the past few days.
"My worry is not that of the disease but of getting food. All the hotels and restaurants from where I used to eat have been shut. I used to beg but now there is no one to give me alms too," he said.
India is under the biggest lockdown in its history with all 1.3 billion people asked to stay home for three weeks in view of the coronavirus outbreak, which has claimed 17 lives and infected over 700 people around the country.
Ghanshyam said he has been surviving by eating food from the garbage since the lockdown was announced and is worried that if the situation persists this source too would deplete.
The Uttar Pradesh government on Thursday directed officials to start community kitchens to provide food to the poor and migrant labourers amid the lockdown imposed to check the spread of coronavirus but daily wager Ramesh has his doubts over its effective implementation.
"How do we reach these kitchens, if we walk we will be stopped and questioned by the police. How do we reach there?" asked Ramesh who used to work as a daily wage worker at a construction factory but lost his job ever since the lockdown and has been living on the streets since last then.
According to the 2011 census, India is home to 17 lakh homeless people who also happen to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their exposure.
Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, said approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide live in homelessness and grossly inadequate housing, often in overcrowded conditions, lacking access to water and sanitation -- making them particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus, as they are often suffering from multiple health issues.
She urged States to "take extraordinary measures" to secure the right to housing for all to protect against the pandemic.
"By ensuring access to secure housing with adequate sanitation, States will not only protect the lives of those who are homeless or living in informal settlements but will help protect the entire world's population by flattening the curve of coronavirus,” the UN expert said.
The government and medical professionals have advised everyone to 'stay at home' and wash hands as much as possible.
"Washing our hands regularly is also something not easy for us. Where do we get the soaps from or even clean water," Ramesh asked.
"We have seen a lot in our lives, slept hungry on many nights but never we have witnessed such a situation. We are not sure what is coming next for us and what should we do to protect ourselves. All the steps advised whether it is quarantine or washing our hands is for rich people not for people like us who neither have roof over our heads nor food in our stomachs," he added.
Bharat Gopal, Senior Consultant Pulmonologist and Director National Chest Centre, said maintaining hygiene and social distancing is the key to fight this disease.
"However for those unfortunate homeless people where do they go. On top of it they are the fragile part of our population – the most vulnerable. Though the government is making efforts to provide food and shelter, awareness and the need for staying away from each other would be the key," Gopal told said.
"Areas to wash hands should be made available to these people too. The NGOs can teach them the correct technique and if these people also learn the hygiene – this enemy (coronavirus) would teach us the biggest lesson and actually save the whole population in future from so many other diseases," he added.