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For the past five years, Durgesh K. has been starting his workday at 9:30am by touching the Ganesha idol that sits on his desk next to the computer. Two weeks ago, he changed his routine. The first thing he now does as soon as he reaches the private bank, where he works as a business executive in Delhi, is wipe his already-clean desk with a sanitizer.

“You must have heard... coronavirus is spreading like crazy. My WhatsApp is filled with messages. I don’t want to take any chances," says Durgesh, his face half hidden behind a mask. The 30-something Durgesh doesn’t have the luxury of working from home because “who will face customers then?"

While thousands of employees have started logging in from their living rooms as companies roll out work-from-home drills to combat the spread of novel coronavirus, for many in sectors such as banking, hospitality, media, delivery and construction, working from home is just not an option.

D.B. Bhandari, 35, the manager of an upscale eatery in Delhi, took five days leave without pay last week because he had a cough and cold. “The owner didn’t want to take any chances. It was just a regular flu," he says, with a sigh of relief. “In my profession, work from home is not an option, and taking leave means a salary cut. We wear masks, use sanitizers, and wash our hands as much as possible," he says.

Across the world, professionals, usually in tech and white collar jobs at the higher end of the salary scale, have been asked to work from home as companies try to slow the spread of coronavirus, which has infected more than 108,000 people worldwide. Globally, companies like Microsoft, Twitter, Amazon, Facebook and Chevron have told employees to work remotely. Closer home, Cognizant India has closed its Hyderabad office; Paytm, its Noida and Gurugram branches; hyper-local platform Nearbuy has shut its Gurugram office; Chennai-headquartered cloud services firm Zoho has asked its 7,500 employees across the world to work from home.

There are, however, many, like those in restaurants, retail and in the gig economy, who have to choose between staying home and getting paid. The options diminish further if you are a blue-collar worker like a construction worker or a mechanic. The ratio of blue to white-collar workers, according to India’s labour ministry, is 78:22. What’s worse, their chances of contracting infections is higher than those who work in office environments.

Ekart courier’s delivery boy S. Verma, 36, learnt about the virus late last week during a morning team huddle. His manager informed the team about “a virus spreading like a plague" and told them to protect themselves. “They didn’t give us any protective gear. I bought a mask yesterday because the others were," he says. “I don’t know anything else about it," he replies, when asked whether he was aware about washing hands regularly and avoiding handshakes. Didn’t he hear about it on TV, radio or WhatsApp? “Eighteen hours a day on the road, who has the time? And if I stay at home, who will feed my family?"

Ram Lal, a construction worker from Rajasthan, came to know about the “bimari" on Sunday when he was buying vegetables for his five-member family from a vendor who asked him whether his hands were clean. “I had no idea what he was talking about. My contractor didn’t mention it. The seller told me all about it and I’m scared but I can’t sit at home," he says. “I cough sometimes during the day while working," he adds. “It could be because of the dust and cement, but now I think it could be coronavirus too."

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