Kuala Lumpur – A Covid Chronicle
Petronas Twin Towers, the crown jewel of Kuala Lumpur looks majestic, soaring to a height of over 450 metres. The structure that captures Kuala Lumpur’s ambitions and aspirations stands tall and throws a lofty glance at the street below. The towers that were party to the bustle during the day and the dazzle during the night stares at empty roads all around and a vacant neighbourhood as far as it can view. With the MCO to remain until well into June, it will be a long, lonesome, locus for the lofty structure that is the pride of Malaysia.
Tun Razak, the Father of Development would have never envisaged the traffic jam that Jalan Tun Razak would be subjected to on every business day as a corollary of his development dreams. And Jalan Tun Razak commuters have been hoping against hope of witnessing a day when it is devoid of the bumper to bumper traffic and incessant woes.
Today, their prayers have been answered. But the answer was delivered along with an abundance of ominous dark clouds overhead. Along came the pandemic. The MCO has rendered the street the much needed respite from traffic woes. But is that what Jalan Tu Razak commuters asked for? No. They would rather savour the suffering and swearing they endured on the street in a bygone era.
Nasi Kandar Pelita made everything their guests wanted to satiate their appetite. Both the gourmet and the glutton relished their menu 24x7, 365 days. From Plain Naan to Tandoori Ayam Kampung, from Plain Thosai to Rawa Thosai Telur Bawang from Plain Dalcha to Biriyani Kambing, they ensured their patrons got the best dining experience at their outlets. With the MCO in place, they look downcast 24x7. But their business hasn’t suffered entirely. They still deliver biryanis and Thosais at the homes of their regulars.
The Food carriers. Rather, The Covid Warriors! They fight Covid by carrying food for the hungry! The food Panda and Grab Food delivery boys can be seen whizzing past everywhere on city streets. As the MCO stipulated against eating in restaurants, the delivery boys moved in as food carriers, helping the restaurants and the hungry and in the process, helping themselves.
Little India, with its quaint street arches, old-world street lamps and paved streets invariably provided the visitor with a sight to behold. With its sights, smells, sounds and tastes of India, Kuala Lumpur’s Indian community always provided tourists with an opportunity to experience the subcontinent in Malaysia. One could see an array of shops selling aromatic spices, saris, jewellery, henna tattoos along with South India’s favourite Banana Leaf restaurants. One could also listen to latest Kollywood hits blasting out from the loud speakers on either side of the road. In the evenings the district burst with life, colour and soul. Today there is no one to break traffic rules and no cars to be parked hither thither. Much less, the Kollywood cacophony that kindles the core of the casual visitors.
NU Sentral, the shopping mall in the area, and a pathway between Stesen Sentral and the KL Sentral monorail station is empty. Its shopping complexes, offices, hotels too are shut and its escalators haven’t moved since the MCO came into effect. The most ebullient escalator of the most boisterous business district is a relaxed people mover today. It stands still musing on the millions it used to meet and serve. It was always on the go. It no longer is.
International air travel and train services were the first casualties of the pandemic from transport sector worldwide. Believed to be the largest carriers of the virus from one spot to another, administrations had no option but to shut down these vital organs of their nations. The Airport in the city, as KL City Air Terminal is called, like every other airport in the world, came to a halt when MCO was announced. So were all other facilities including KLIA Ekspres and KLIA Transit. And not to mention, what has also ceased to materialize is international business travel.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, the wet markets are busy, though not as busy as they were, in normal times. Wet market merchandise have been classified under essential items and citizens are allowed to shop maintaining proper social distancing rules and MCO restrictions.
This meat seller runs a kedai ayam in Dato Keramat Market. Unlike normal times, he wears a mask and gloves but he is quite happy and thanks everyone for letting him start work. He has been selling chicken at the market for several years now and says he has never imagined the market would ever have to be closed, albeit for a few days, at a stretch.
The woman does odd jobs in the wet market. She works as a home delivery boy cum meat carrier in one of the shops in Dato Keramat. She is aware that wet markets are an important "risk factor" for Covid spread. She has also learned that meat sold in the wet markets elsewhere in the world is believed to be the source of the current pandemic. But she argues that these markets also sustain the livelihoods of millions of people like him and meat is a critical source of food security and nutrition, for most people.
He knows he is doing a perilous job but says he has to take risks in order to support his family.
Wet markets are certainly not for the faint hearted, as livestock like chickens and frogs are slaughtered on the spot and seafood is displayed whole on ice. But wet markets also have a less gruesome side, in the drier outdoors, where all kinds of vegetables, garden plants and fruits are sold. Every corner of wet markets that were a scene of cacophony in the recent past, sounds much less dissonant these days since the MCO came into force. Shoppers these days need to submit to temperature tests and wear plastic gloves and are not allowed to throng the shops. During the Ramadan, wet markets have been allowed to operate from 6 AM to 2PM and that is a relief for many.
Meanwhile the wet markets have stalls that sell a variety of meat, from fish and chicken to beef, mutton and pork. The food stalls that operate in the evenings are a hit with locals and tourists alike for their fresh and flaky curry puffs, egg tarts, kaya puffs, and siew pau and the buns (often meat-filled). Vendors here are polite and this is one of the areas where you can see Malaysian hospitality at its best. Locals unfailingly frequent this section of the market for their low food prices. There are no delivery boys to carry food from these stalls even during MCO. They cut, cook and serve the food there itself.
They stand under the hot sun, for hours at a stretch and are there in the pouring rain too. They have to put up with fallacious, ill-mannered, and impatient motorists. The motorists fail to appreciate what an excellent job these service-personnel are doing to help keep every single person in this country safe, and to contain the spread of a dangerous contagion. But they don’t complain. They continue to stand there doing their duty.
This policeman is one among them. He has Defence personnel to help him ensure people don’t move around without reason. He and his team, along with the army have been right in the middle of the streets ever since MCO was announced. He understands the frustration of the motorists but only wishes that they knew why movement controls, social distancing and personal hygiene are the only weapons available to us against this virus. And he is doing his part in controlling movements.
She works as a street sweeper. She uses a broom and shovel to clean off litter, animal waste and filth that accumulate on the streets everyday. She believes hers is an important job even in normal times. A clean street is a pride for the locals and an impressive sight for the visitors and a healthy locality for the city administration. In times of a pandemic, her job becomes all the more important as it is one of those services in the vanguard of fight against the virus. She starts early, before the streets start brimming with boisterousness. Hers is a job that has no holidays, no festivals and no MCO.
Women bus drivers are still relatively new in Malaysia and RapidKL has only sixty odd women drivers or bus captains in its strength.
‘It’s a challenging job. I not only drive the bus but I also take care of the passengers’ safety as well. I have also learnt to deal with irate and drunk passengers,’ says the bus driver.
Covid or no Covid, she has a job to do. And her job includes interacting with hundreds of passengers, dispensing tickets to them, accepting money from them and giving them change. She does all that in the most uncomfortable situations, wearing a mask, gloves and any other protective gear if needed, without complaint. Because she needs to protect herself and a family.
Elsewhere, Jalan Tun Sambanthan and Brickfields are giving an impression of bleak emptiness that it hasn’t felt for several decades. The area that once teemed with IT professionals who serviced the corporate world seems to have capitulated to the challenges thrown by Coronavirus. These days the IT professionals work from home and the other businesses that serviced them have shut shop. The once festive district now looks forgotten.
For now, visitors and regulars at Brickfields who are inclined towards spiritual engagements find solace in the incorporeal pursuits at the Vivekananda Ashram further down the street. Meditation, they say, strengthens immune system and promotes emotional health and that in itself is an unerring weapon to fight a de trop pandemic.