COVID-19 cases rise in India as migrant workers return home from cities

NEW DELHI: Almost two months after imposing a nationwide lockdown, India is witnessing a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, which experts attribute to more than 3 million migrant workers returning from major cities to their home states.

In the eastern state of Bihar, for example, at least 2 million migrant laborers are expected to return from across the country over the next few months.

According to data released by the Bihar government on Monday, out of 835 migrant workers who were tested on their return from Delhi, one in every four tested positive for COVID-19. The total number of COVID- 19 cases in Bihar jumped to 1,500 on Wednesday — an increase of more than 700 from the previous Friday.

“We feared that the return of migrant workers to the state would cause a spurt in the cases,” a Health Ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Those laborers who are returning from different states are being put into quarantine, and the government is trying hard to make sure the virus does not spread to the villages,” he added.

In a surprise decision on Wednesday, the Bihar government removed the main spokesperson and the health secretary, Sanjay Kumar, from his post as COVID-19 cases in the state rose.

Until May 18, the state had tested 8,337 people who had come from outside the state, of whom 651 tested positive.

According to a rough estimate, the eastern state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh account for at least 3 million migrant workers across the country. 

As industrial units and construction activities across the country shut down after the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24, millions of workers were rendered jobless and homeless. 

Many of them started walking back to their native states hundreds of kilometers away. 

Since early May, the government has been running special trains from different parts of the country to transport these “daily-wage” workers home. But a fortnight on, thousands are still stranded in Delhi.

“It’s an unprecedented situation and a humanitarian crisis of great magnitude,” the Delhi-based NGO Ajeevika Bureau said in a statement to Arab News.

Some analysts have criticized the way the central government implemented the lockdown.

“You cannot blame people for the crisis. The government introduced lockdown without planning, and the result is the chaos that we are seeing. This was the fear earlier: That if the migrant workers return, it will lead to an escalation in cases. That fear is coming true,” Gaya-based political analyst Pawan Pratyay told Arab News.

“So far, the poorer states like Bihar have been safe. But the return of the migrants at this stage makes the whole population nervous,” Pratyay added.

Currently, India is seeing around 5,500 new COVID-19 cases every day. On Wednesday, the total number of cases passed 106,000 and there have been 3,500 deaths.

“If the government wanted, they could have done things differently and planned the lockdown well and contained the spread of the cases. It was an unplanned, hurried exercise. It was more of a political decision than a decision based on the advice of epidemiologists, ” Professor T Jacob John of the Indian Academy of Science told Arab News.

“I see an avalanche of cases in India and the peak period might be from the first week of July to the second week of August,” he added.

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