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Third-World memories create perspective

Undoubtedly, the most used buzzword today is “social distancing.”

Until about two months ago, I can’t say that I ever had heard the term. And if I had heard it mentioned out of context, I might have assumed it referred to people like my mom who has never once engaged in any form of social media.

Now, though, we’ve all become way too acquainted with the term. Most of us probably wish that we weren’t.

But here in Ohio, social distancing truly isn’t so hard to achieve.

We live in homes surrounded by decent-sized grassy yards. Most of us drive to work or the store alone in our own cars. Really, there’s no burning need to go out for entertainment when we are equipped at home with Netflix and premium on-demand movie channels.

Here at our downtown Warren newspaper offices, I estimate about 70 percent of my newsroom staff is working remotely these days. That leaves just a handful of us in the newsroom everyday, with way, way more than the required 6 feet of space between our work areas.

At the end of the day, we really just need to be smart about our personal hygiene and how we move around.

Things are way different here than in other parts of the world. Of course, we know about COVID-19’s grip on metropolitan areas like New York. But what about intensely overpopulated Third-World cities around the globe?

Six years ago, I traveled to the other side of the world with a group of U.S. journalists to India, hosted by industrial giant Tata Group, which owns Warren’s Thomas Steel Strip.

We spent several days in Mumbai, a vibrant but extremely overcrowded city of nearly 20 million.

The metropolitan area’s never-ending sea of people and the horrible lack of personal space are burned into my memory.

I recall the sights, sounds and smells, along with the chaotic mass of people. Families there call tiny — and I mean tiny — shanties home. They are built upward, stacked one atop the other because they are poor and, well, there simply is nowhere else to construct them.

I was cautious the entire time I was there, but I recall once being truly frightened. Our group had traveled together to Hyderabad, where we were spending an evening in the open-air market on a small square surrounding India’s largest mosque. It was filled with thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of people. I had stopped in the crazy carnival atmosphere to snap a photograph. When I turned back, my group had disappeared into the crowd. For a moment I was gripped by panic. Surrounded by literally thousands of people, few who spoke English, I was terrified. How would I ever find my group again?

Thankfully, I spotted our driver who had parked after dropping us off at the market, and he was able to assist me.

Early in our trip, I recall witnessing vehicles parked across a large bridge in the center of Mumbai. People — mostly men — sat alone on the hoods of their cars, gazing silently across the city and the constant flow of passers-by.

I asked our host what they were doing. He responded that with no place to go and nothing to do, residents often sit alone along roadsides, seeking simply to find some sort of personal space which, in this country of nearly 1.3 billion people, is not come by easily.

It’s frightening, really, to consider the number of deaths that would result if COVID-19 were to sweep through a metropolis such as this.

An Associated Press story outlining some of the challenges created by the lockdown of India’s 1.3 billion people published on our Health page last week reminded me of the masses I had witnessed there in 2014.

It’s amazing to think of the struggles unfolding around the world in areas like this, as we here in America’s Midwest stress over our governor’s orders to stay home and wash our hands.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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