It’s 8am at an upscale housing society in central Mumbai. As an army of cooks, sweepers and babysitters troop in and sanitize their hands at the entrance, they confront the latest irony. While there is a wave of paranoia about the hygiene standards of maids, given their cramped homes and peak-hour commutes, the first domestic help reported with Covid-19 in Mumbai got the ailment from her US-returned employer.

“I feel scared because people living in this building have travelled abroad and that’s how the disease came,” said Asha Katkar (name changed) who sweeps and swabs in four homes. Asha takes the train from Kalyan which remains packed, although the crowd has reduced. The current situation worries her too, but she has little choice. Her husband is an alcoholic and she has two school. “I make Rs 17,000 a month. I run the house and pay my children’s fees,” she said.

Mala (name changed) is a cook who commutes by bus and works in three homes in a building in south Mumbai. “Last week, one of the sahebs came from Dubai from where so many cases came. But how could I refuse to work there?” she asked. Domestics also know they face a risk from the children of employers who have returned from their colleges from the UK and the US.

Some employers have given their part-timers paid leave until the crisis ebbs, in a bid to avoid a threat to themselves. Those with full-time help have chosen to retain them. “I had two part-time maids. I requested one of them to move in full-time. The other maid will get paid leave. I cannot expose her to a crowded train and let the infection into my home,” said Anjali Shah (name changed). Maids worry about losing their jobs if the crisis continues for a longer period.

The maid hiring aggregator, Bookmybai, has reported a 50% drop in demand for part-time helpers in Mumbai in March compared to February. The demand for full-timers is up 50%. “Overall, the demand for maids remains around the same, but there has been a dramatic shift from the demand for part-timers to full-timers in the city,” said Bookmybai founder Anupam Sinhal. “In February, we supplied 800 part-timers and 300 full-timers in Mumbai. So far, in March, the demand is for 400 part-timers and 600 full-timers.”

However, while employers are changing the rules for their domestic help, regulating themselves has proved more difficult. Several gated communities, which have asked residents to declare any recent international travel and requested them to selfquarantine for 14 days, have met with little response. “I recently saw a couple who had returned from the US in the garden and they jokingly said I should stay away from them,” said an irate resident of a south Mumbai building.

So, should people be sending their maids home for greater social distancing? “I would definitely say that those who have returned from a foreign country and not observed self-quarantine are a bigger risk in the building than maids. People who don’t observe social responsibility themselves should not point fingers at others,” says Dr Hemant Thacker, consultant physician at Jaslok and Breach Candy hospitals.

“It makes little sense to send your part-time maid home to avoid infection but continue visiting your bank, office and beauty parlour. You are as vulnerable to catching it there.”

Some families have given their part-timers paid leave until the crisis ebbs, and those with full-time help have chosen to retain them

Dabbawalas suspend services till March 31

The dabbawala association on Thursday said they will suspend tiffin delivery services till March 31 in view of the rise in number of coronavirus cases in Mumbai. Subhash Talekar, spokesperson of Mumbai Dabbawala Association, said the decision was taken in response to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s appeal to not crowd local trains to contain the infection. PTI