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Covid curbs changed the way India lives

By, New Delhi
Mar 24, 2021 06:55 AM IST

This data, shared publicly by Google, enables us to understand how a year of lockdown may have permanently altered recurring aspects of our daily lives, such as going to office five days a week, that have been commonplace since as far back as the Industrial Revolution.

It has now been a year since India announced the start of a hard lockdown to slow the rate of Covid-19 infections. For many across the country, March 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the start of an entirely new way of life. A year that will likely go down as the toughest in the lives of many, and one that will mark lifestyle changes that may even end up being permanent.

A health worker wearing protective gear collects a swab sample from a man for the Covid-19 coronavirus rapid antigen test (RAT) next to a picture of Hindu deity placed under a tree along the roadside in New Delhi on March 23, 2021.(AFP)
A health worker wearing protective gear collects a swab sample from a man for the Covid-19 coronavirus rapid antigen test (RAT) next to a picture of Hindu deity placed under a tree along the roadside in New Delhi on March 23, 2021.(AFP)

To understand how a nationwide lockdown changed behavioural patterns across the country, Google in April 2020 started publishing Covid-19 “Community Mobility Reports” to provide insights into what has changed in the lives of people with new policies in place for work from home, shelter in place, and shutdown of recreation centres such as malls and cinema halls. The reports used aggregated data to chart movement trends over time across different categories of places such as retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential areas, spread across a wide variety of geographies.

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This data, shared publicly by Google, enables us to understand how a year of lockdown may have permanently altered recurring aspects of our daily lives, such as going to office five days a week, that have been commonplace since as far back as the Industrial Revolution.

To calculate each day’s baseline of activity/mobility, Google took the median day-value from the five-week period in January 2020 (January 3 to February 6). The data must be looked at keeping in mind local events and seasonal changes that might bias the findings, such as public holidays or drop in daytime activity during peak summer.

To be sure, Google’s calculations are based on data from users who have opted in for “location history” to be shared for their Google accounts, so that the data represents a sample of people using devices that have Google’s Andriod OS. As with all samples, this may or may not represent the exact behaviour of a wider population, but tends to serve as a good example of larger trends of movement in a country such as India with millions of Android users.

WORST HIT: SHOPPING AND RECREATION

The retail and recreation category refers to mobility data at places such as restaurants, cafés, shopping centres, theme parks, museums, libraries, and cinemas. This category was not only the sector that was most affected by the lockdown in the country initially; it is also the sector that has seen the least activity even in recent weeks. At its worst, activity and mobility in this category dropped 87% (towards the middle of April). Even though restrictions have largely been lifted at restaurants, cinemas, malls etc., this sector remains the one that has recovered the least from the lockdown. In the past week, activity at retail and recreation centres remained 21% below baseline levels.


The lockdown impact gets further emphasised when looking only at metros. Mumbai and Chennai, in particular, appear to have recovered the least. The mobility trend in Mumbai dropped by 94% during peak lockdown, while in Chennai it fell 97%. In the past week, activity has far from resumed to normal levels – in Mumbai, activity remains 41.6% below baseline, while in Chennai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, it is around 30% below baseline. In Delhi, the fall is 27%.

LEAST HIT: GROCERY AND PHARMACY

At the other end of the spectrum, the least affected category from the lockdown was grocery and pharmacy. At its worst, when the nationwide lockdown was kicked off in the final week of March, activity in the field dropped 64% from baseline. Since then, this essential sector was not only the one with the fastest recovery, but also the one that saw a significant improvement over baseline levels. In the past week, activity at supermarket and pharmacy outlets across India was nearly 20% above levels considered normal.

In terms of metros though, this recovery appears to have been rather sedated – in the past week, mobility at shops has increased around 5% above baseline in Mumbai and Chennai, while it is only 3.5% in Delhi and 1.4% in Bengaluru. Kolkata, meanwhile, is yet to even recover in this field – the city remains 9.4% below baseline levels.

WORKPLACE SHIFT PERMANENT?

Another interesting sector to look at is workplaces and offices, as it is possibly the one that has suffered the most long-lasting changes due to the lockdown, both in India and globally. Work from home, commonly abbreviated as WFH, has become common parlance across the globe since lockdowns forced most organisations to shift their employees to work remotely. This was also, unsurprisingly, the second quickest sector to start its recovery (it was rising fast by mid-April), behind only grocery and pharmacy. During peak lockdown, movement at offices across India dropped as low as 72% from baseline, but as of last week, it has remains only 15% below baseline nationally.

There are two interesting points to note from this sector, however.

First, while recovery was fast in this field initially, it tapered off towards October, and has been inching relatively slowly since. Several sectors that were behind, such as transit stations and parks, are now ahead. This may be a sign that the WFH shift may have moved the baseline permanently (or at least for the near future) to significantly lower than what it was in 2020.

Second, Bengaluru remains the city with the largest drop from baseline – the city is still nearly 40% below the January 2020 baseline, while other metros are in the 20% drop range (the national average is higher still at -15%). This may be because the city is home to the Silicon Valley of India, and the IT firms in the city could implement remote working far more effectively than non-IT sector companies located in other metros.

OTHER SECTORS

The category of transit stations includes movement at places that are public transport hubs, such as Metro rail, bus and train stations. This was the field that saw the second fastest recovery across the country – in the past week, activity at transit hubs is only 5% below normal levels across India. This is a crucial indicator of how mobility, in a wider sense of the word, is nearly back to normal. This field has made a steady recovery since March last year.

Residential movement, meanwhile, was the only category which understandably saw a positive reaction to the lockdown as more people were confined to their homes than usual. Starting with the lockdown, activity levels at homes remained in the +30% zone till mid-May (the period that saw the hardest level of lockdown in the country). Even in the last week, activity remains slightly above baseline levels in all metros, as well as the national average, which may be a knock-on effect of the WFH impact on activity at workplaces.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Jamie Mullick works as a chief content producer at Hindustan Times. He uses data and graphics to tell his stories.

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