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COVID-19: With migrant returnees, is India scaling up the Second Wave?

  • Millions of Indian migrant workers returning home now.
  • Some of them tested positive; add to their home states’ woes
  • COVID-19’s resurgence and Second Wave possible in some countries.

New Delhi: India has, with 85.940 positive cases and 2,752 deaths as on Saturday, inched past China which now, officially, has 82,941 infections and 4,666 deaths. In the global tally of COVID-19 cases, India stands at 11th place and China on the 13th.

Globally, 308,606 people have died of coronavirus so far and 4.6 million tested positive. America has, of course, maintained its top position with 88,507 deaths and 1.48 million infections.

The Road to Nowhere? Migrant workers in India walking home.

In the last couple of weeks, China, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, among others, have witnessed a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, in what health experts suspect a possible commencement of the Second Wave of the global pandemic.

A hundred years ago, the influenza pandemic had claimed between 100 and 200 million lives across the world in the three years it lasted. And COVID-19 in many countries is just three months old. We can only guess if the worst is yet to come. The WHO and others have cautioned the people that the pandemic is unlikely to go away early. Not even after vaccines hit the markets as the ‘smart virus’ is capable of mutation.

In India also, some states have reported a resurgence of COVID-19 with fresh and asymptomatic cases rising. Although it is too early to say, states like Kerala, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, and Goa could also witness the beginning of a Second Wave now. These states had stopped reporting new cases or had very few.

This week, however, they have reported increased numbers. In Goa, which reported zero cases for a month after all its seven positive cases tested negative in March, eight new patients were found this week—all of them returning from other places. Likewise, all 41 cases were cured in Himachal Pradesh by the first week of May; but 34 new cases have been found this week.

Why this resurgence of coronavirus cases in India? One reason may be complacency due to recoveries—even in such cases experts have warned that those who recovered could face lifelong problems in kidneys and hearts. Another and more important reason is the return of migrant workers from other states. And, this ‘de-urbanization’ is scary.

During the last few days, nearly 1.5 million migrant workers have returned home in their native places by trains, on foot, or by other means of transport. A large number of them, anxious to return home by any which means, are currently hitting the Indian roads and highways in an endless caravan of poor, hungry people. Weakened due to malnutrition and poor hygienic conditions, many of them lost immunity and may have turned into ready pollinators of the highly infectious disease. Their exodus from the cities may imperil the health of the villages.

With economic liberalization and globalization beginning in 1991, an estimated 100-200 million people migrated from the Indian villages to the urban areas, from one state to another, in search of livelihoods. Mostly they lived in ghettos or slums while creating edifices of Modern India. The country owes a large share of its economic development, enhanced infrastructure, and industrialization to these migrant workers. So, when the lockdown began on March 25, many a Good Samaritan, NGO, and grateful others came forward to help them. Many of them had lost jobs.

However, they lost patience due to prolonged lockdown, especially as free meals and food grain gradually dried up. Come what may, they decided to return home from where they had come. Despite best efforts, and due to their sheer large numbers, many of them could not return by special trains or buses. They decided to walk down to the villages, crowding the roads and highways. Some of these unfortunate workers died on roads, others in accidents. There have been many heart-wrenching stories of their helplessness.

Their homeward return has, however, rung alarm bells in their own home states, straining their resources and stressed healthcare apparatus as the government further reopens the locked-down towns and cities in a graded manner.

With many of them reaching home, amid Indian cities gradually reopening from the lockdown, the urban areas are already facing acute shortage of workers, a corresponding rise in wages and price-levels, and on-the-cards enhanced mechanization and automation to make up for the loss of workers. These workers are unlikely to return to the towns and cities early. Also because they are being provided food grain and rations free of cost and many are expecting to be employed in large-scale infrastructure projects about to be launched.

The government has also increased daily wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), with an assurance of 100 days of employment per annum. In other words, with their bare minimum needs for survival taken care of in or around their villages, many would stay back in their villages. It may seem a ‘positive’ development as the workers would be employed in their native ecosystem.

But its other side is rather dreadful. For, many of these returnees have tested positive in states like Bihar, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh, among others, which are the main suppliers of migrant labor. In the last week alone, more than 200 returnees tested positive in Bihar. Telangana directed these returnees to quarantine en masse. In some cases, their own panicked families refused to let these returnees enter the villages, lest they infect others.

They are still returning in large numbers across the length and breadth of India…

Cautioning the people that they may have now to learn to live with coronavirus, the government is concerned over whether these migrants could now become fresh super-spreaders of the pandemic in Indian villages which were until now rather free of the virus? So far, the government has been able to check the spread in the urban areas. In the villages, however, healthcare facilities are either inadequate or non-existent. At least the COVID-19 deaths in the urban areas are reported daily. What about rural areas? Will the returnees be bringing home coronavirus with them? Likely.

At least 7.5 percent of samples of nearly 4,300 migrant returnees in Bihar have tested positive. They had returned by special trains between May 4 and 13. Until then, Bihar had reported only 2.75 percent positive cases. Clearly, the rate has tripled. This high positivity rate has alarmed Bihar where they are returning in thousands each from six bordering states. At less than 8.5 days, Bihar has among the fastest doubling rate, the national average being 12.65 days.

Similarly, the Ganjam district of Odisha and some areas in Andhra Pradesh have emerged as the fresh hotspots for similar reasons.

Predictably, political parties are smelling an opportunity in this national crisis.Scared of venturing out of their air-conditioned homes, and carefully avoiding donations or providing free meals to the poor workers, they are simply shooting sermons on social media and ‘video conferences’–of course condemning the Modi Government along the way to keep their ‘records’ straight.

And the last word is yet to emerge…it could in the coming weeks.

Written by Virendra Pandit

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