Exodus from Indian cities prompts fears of major rural coronavirus outbreak

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Health workers collect swab samples to test for COVID-19 in New Delhi, India, Friday, April 16, 2021. (AP Photo)
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People stand outside a vaccination center after hearing news of a shortage of coronavirus vaccine supplies in Mumbai, India, April 9, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 16 April 2021

Exodus from Indian cities prompts fears of major rural coronavirus outbreak

  • India enforced a national lockdown to stop the virus last year, costing millions of jobs
  • Health authorities: Remote areas where migrant workers head will be unprepared to treat sick

NEW DELHI: A rapid surge in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections has prompted a new exodus from Indian cities, as thousands of workers head home over a fear of lockdowns, raising concerns that their return may result in major outbreaks in rural areas.

New daily infections have doubled since last week, surging to a daily record of more than 200,000 on Thursday and forcing authorities to tighten restrictions. Nearly 14.3 million Indians have contracted the virus since the beginning of the outbreak last year, and over 174,000 have died.

As New Delhi imposed a weekend lockdown after its caseload soared from 1,000 to 17,000 in two weeks, migrant workers in the capital city flocked to bus and train stations on Friday to return to their homes, mainly in the eastern part of India.

In states like Jharkhand, one of the poorest in the country, health authorities are worried that the remote areas the workers are headed to will be unprepared to test those arriving, or treat the sick.

“Beds are (scarce) in Jharkhand, and if the migrant laborers come back, there is a high probability that many more would be infected and the patient load would burden the system,” said Dr. Dilip Kumar Jha of Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in the eastern state’s capital, Ranchi.


“The situation is already overstretched, and the new variants of COVID-19 are infecting more people — that’s why over 200,000 cases are being reported every day now in India,” he told Arab News.

Pulmonologist Dr. Loveleen Mangla, from Noida, which borders New Delhi, is also worried about the emerging scenario as workers return to their villages.

“Already in a city like Noida, where hospitals are short of beds, it is becoming difficult to manage the current load of patients. If the villages get infected then the situation will become unmanageable,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the government has not learnt any lessons from last year’s experience, and the situation this year is grimmer than before.”

Last year, when India enforced one of the world’s toughest national lockdowns to stop the virus spread, millions of people lost their jobs within days, fueling the biggest migration across the Indian subcontinent since the partition with Pakistan in 1947. Some walked hundreds of kilometers to their hometowns.

“The situation is not as bad as last year but the issue facing the migrant laborers … remains the same,” Nirmal Gorana, president of the Delhi-based Bonded Labor Liberation Front, an NGO which helps workers, told Arab News.

“Laborers have started going back home either by buses or trains, but the government does not have any plan to support them financially, a demand we made last year,” Gorana said.

“Many face an existential crisis, as even in their villages they don’t get any work to sustain themselves.”

Yogendra Yadav, a Bihar native who works as a plumber in west Delhi, told Arab News: “It’s a panic situation for me. The cases are rising and now the limited lockdown has started, the uncertainty of last year’s returns again. I am leaving for Bihar.”

When the nationwide lockdown started on March 25 last year, Yadav got stuck in New Delhi with his wife and small child. He lost all his savings and had to depend on others for survival for two months before he managed to return home.

“It was a horrible experience. I returned to Delhi in January this year with the hope of starting anew, but the situation is worse than last year. The virus is spreading fast now,” he said.

Sarat Zagade of Ajivika Foundation, an NGO which works for workers’ welfare, said that many were also leaving industrial towns.

In one such town, Surat, in the western state of Gujarat where virus figures are seeing an unprecedented jump, many have already left.

“Surat’s population is 60 percent migrant laborers,” Zagade said. “I have seen at least 10 percent of people leaving the city out of fear.”

In Mumbai, the country’s financial hub and the capital of the western state of Maharashtra, the worst-affected state in India, thousands of migrant workers have been queuing up at the Lokmanya Tilak station to catch trains to return to their home states.

Maharashtra earlier this week imposed a lockdown till the end of the month.  

Alok Singh, a tuk-tuk driver from Uttar Pradesh who has been living in Mumbai for 10 years, said that with restrictions in place, earning a normal livelihood is impossible.

“It’s the third day I am making an attempt to board a train, and I have a confirmed ticket to go back to my village in Gorakhpur,” he said.

Santosh Pandit, a construction worker from Bihar’s Gaya district, said he is leaving Mumbai because there is no work.

“If I stay here, if not infection, then hunger will kill me,” he said. “At least in my village I will not die of hunger.”

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

Updated 14 May 2021

Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char observe first ‘isolated’ Eid Al-Fitr

  • Families receive food aid, new clothes as Ramadan draws to a close amid health restrictions

DHAKA: Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char island observed their first Eid Al-Fitr on Thursday, May 13, in an “isolated state” far away from their relatives.  

Most of the people relocated to the new island facility left their friends and relatives in 34 camps at Cox’s Bazar, which is home for more than 1 million Rohingya refugees.  

Bangladesh began the relocation of refugees, 18,000 to date, to Bhasan Char, some 63 km from the mainland, at the end of last year, explaining that it would ease pressure on the congested camps at Cox’s Bazar.

“We are observing a different kind of Eid this year, far away from friends and relatives. Usually we get together with relatives on Eid days,” Rohingya refugee Abdur Rahman, 37, told Arab News. 

“On this special occasion, I am not seeing any friends and relatives around me. Sometimes I feel isolated.”

Rahman said: “Mobile phones are the only way of communication for us but it’s not always affordable.”

Another refugee, Morium Begum, 29, said her children are missing the Eid festivities in Cox’s Bazar. 

“My children used to visit their friends’ houses and Eid fairs on these days at Cox’s Bazar. But here they don’t have any friends,” Begum told Arab News. 

“Probably, the ongoing coronavirus lockdown added more to our isolation. Otherwise authorities may have allowed some Eid fairs for the children,” she added. 

Mohammad Hossain, 19, said this Eid was a new experience to him. “The congregation field is prepared with makeshift tents and decorated in a befitting manner, which created much festivity on the island,” Hossain told Arab News. “I never saw this sort of arrangement in my days at Cox’s Bazar’s refugee camps.”

On marking Eid Al-Fitr, authorities have provided special food aid to the refugees on the island. 

“A food package containing vermicelli, powdered milk, sugar, edible oil, rice, lentil, spices etc have been provided on the occasion of Eid,” Moazzam Hossain, Bangladesh’s additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told Arab News. 

“All the families received this aid according to their family size and need,” he said, adding that 5,000 new clothing items were also distributed to Rohingya children.

For maintaining social distancing and health and safety guidelines, authorities have organized three separate Eid congregations on the island. 

“Since the beginning of the Rohingya exodus in 2017, this is the first time the refugees on the island got the opportunity to celebrate the Eid festival in a comfortable environment, free from the threat of landslides, rough weather and the highly congested environment of the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps,” Hossain added. 

Emergency health services are also open during Eid, and there are eight government health officials currently serving on the island, he said.

UN and international aid agencies are yet to begin aid operations on the island.

Currently, more than 40 local NGOs are providing humanitarian support to the relocated refugees. 

“Here the refugees are fully dependent on relief support, since there is no other source (of aid) on the island,” Saiful Islam Chowdhury, chief executive of Pulse Bangladesh Society, told Arab News. 

“We made a need assessment for each of the families, and supplied aid accordingly, so that all of them can enjoy the festival,” he added.

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

Updated 14 May 2021

UK’s Johnson: New variant could disrupt route out of lockdown

  • Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the spread of a new variant of coronavirus first detected in India could disrupt plans to move to eliminate most remaining lockdown measures in June, although it would not delay the next step in easing.
"We will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday, but I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress, and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June," Johnson told a Downing Street briefing on Friday.

Johnson also said he would accelerate the provision of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
“It’s more important than ever therefore that people get the additional protection of a second dose,” he told a news conference.
“So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over 50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country, so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose,” he said.

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

Updated 14 May 2021

Vaccinated should still mask up in high Covid areas: WHO

  • "Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough," WHO told AFP in an email
  • The comment followed US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to lift mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people

GENEVA: Even after receiving Covid-19 jabs, people should wear face masks in areas where the virus is spreading, the WHO said Friday, after the US decided the vaccinated do not need masks.
“Vaccines are life-saving but on their own, they are not enough,” the World Health Organization told AFP in an email.
The comment followed a decision by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday to lift mask-wearing guidance for people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
Almost 60 percent of US adults now have one or both doses, while cases are falling fast, down to a seven-day-average of 38,000, or 11 per 100,000.
The WHO refrained from commenting specifically on the US situation, but experts highlighted that the decision to remove Covid restrictions, including mask recommendations, should rely on more than just the vaccination rate.
“It’s about how much virus is circulating,” WHO Covid-19 lead Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters.
“It’s about the amount of vaccines and vaccinations that are rolling out, it’s about the variants... that are circulating.”
The vaccines in use against Covid-19 have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, and there is also increasing evidence that they provide high protection against infection and transmission of the virus.
But WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan stressed they are “not 100 percent effective against preventing infection.”
“You can have asymptomatic or mild illness or even moderate symptoms even after being vaccinated,” she said, warning that “vaccination alone is not a guarantee against infection or against being able to transmit that infection to others.”
It may be rare, but could still occur, she said.
“That’s why we need the other protective measures like the mask wearing, and the distancing and so on until countries get to the level at which a large number of people are protected and virus circulation and the transmission goes to very low levels.”
So far, she warned, “very few countries are at the point now where they can drop these measures by individuals and by governments.”
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan agreed.
Relaxing measures and taking away mask mandates, he said, “should only be done in the context of considering both the intensity and transmission in your area, and the level of vaccination coverage.”
“Even in situations where you have high vaccine coverage, if you’ve got a lot of transmission, then you wouldn’t take your mask off.”

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

Updated 14 May 2021

UK stands by Eid immigration raid in Glasgow

  • Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim
  • A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters

LONDON: The UK government on Friday defended an immigration raid that inflamed tensions in Glasgow’s Muslim community at the start of Eid Al-Fitr, insisting there was no connection to the Islamic festival.
Thursday’s deportation raid targeted a property housing two illegal immigrants from India, who were not themselves believed to be Muslim.
A UK Home Office van was blockaded by hundreds of chanting protesters, and the pair were eventually released on bail as Glasgow police intervened in a bid to defuse tensions.
“The operation was routine and in no way connected to Eid. We are tackling illegal immigration and the harms it causes,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.
“We will continue to tackle illegal immigration,” he added.
The area in Scotland’s biggest city is home to a large Muslim community, and is part of the constituency of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“The Home Office needs to ask itself hard questions,” she said.
“Doing this on Eid, in the heart of our Muslim community, and in the midst of a serious Covid outbreak, was staggeringly irresponsible — but the even deeper problem is an appalling asylum and immigration policy.”
The incident came after Sturgeon’s pro-independence party and allies secured a majority in the Edinburgh parliament in elections last week, and it fueled anti-UK sentiment in sections of the Scottish media.
Friday’s front-page headline on the pro-independence National newspaper read: “Glasgow 1 ‘Team UK’ 0.”
The raid also caused trouble for Britain’s main opposition Labour party, after a prominent union official tweeted that London-born Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is of Indian descent, should herself be “deported.”
Labour leaders suspended the Unite union’s Howard Beckett, who apologized for the tweet but said he stood by his criticism of the government’s “racist” policies.

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

Updated 14 May 2021

Germany slams ‘anti-Semitic’ demos and Hamas ‘terrorist attacks’

  • Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks”
  • Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict

BERLIN: Germany on Friday said rockets fired by Hamas at Israel amount to “terrorist attacks” and warned it would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations on its own soil as the conflict intensified in the Middle East.
“These are terrorist attacks that have only one goal: to kill people indiscriminately and arbitrarily and to spread fear,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told a government press conference.
Merkel’s government stressed “Israel’s right to self-defense against these attacks,” he added.
Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
The most intense hostilities in seven years were triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Germany has seen scattered demonstrations this week over the escalating conflict, with protesters shouting anti-Semitic slogans and burning Israeli flags.
Flags were burned outside synagogues in Muenster and Bonn, with 16 people arrested.
On Wednesday evening, around 180 people shouted anti-Jewish slogans at a march in Gelsenkirchen, also in the west.
On Thursday around 1,500 people gathered in the northern city of Bremen calling for “freedom for Palestine” in a protest which proceeded without incident, according to local police.
Seibert said Friday that Germany would not tolerate “anti-Semitic” demonstrations.
“Anyone who attacks a synagogue or defiles Jewish symbols shows that for them it is not about criticizing a state or the policies of a government, but about aggression and hate toward a religion and the people who belong to it,” he said.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had on Thursday also condemned the protests.
“Those who burn Star of David flags in our streets and shout anti-Semitic slogans not only abuse the freedom to demonstrate, but are committing crimes,” he told the popular Bild daily.
“Nothing justifies threats against Jews in Germany or attacks on synagogues in German towns,” he said.