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.”