Friday, March 27, 2020

Covid-19 Lockdown in India, the Exodus of Migrant Workers: What the Government can do

We are witnessing a very unfortunate situation that the lock down had brought upon a certain migrant population across the country. The sudden stoppage of transport system along with loss of jobs (and shelter too in many cases) set the stage for the exodus of millions of these workers from big cities to their villages. The tragedy has been unfolding over the last four or five days now.

Painful stories of these migrants trudging along the highways, often with no money or food, with luggage over their heads and children clinging to their shoulders (some barely a few months old), hoping to reach their villages that are hundreds of kilometers away, have filled the media and the internet. It was only on the 26th of March that three Chief Ministers, Mamta Banrjee, Nitish Kumar and Navin Patnaik requested Chief Ministers of other states to provide shelter and food to the people of their respective States, in lieu of payment. Besides that, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi Chief Minister, started some shelter and food facilities in Delhi almost as soon as the lock down began. However, the first three were a few days late and Delhi facilities are not enough to cater to each and every one, although they have been trying. Add to that the reports of the Police beating up, tormenting people on the streets to ensure the curfew.

The central government’s lack of response to this tragedy is incomprehensible. The silence is even more befuddling because this is an absolutely solvable problem. It would have been even easier to sort it earlier. However, it is not too late to step in even now.

Why is it important for the Government to stop this exodus?
This exodus not only renders the lockdown a needless exercise, it may even lead to a much faster and far bigger peak of infections than expected. The logic is simple. A mere look at the visuals of the exodus tells us that if a single person in that crowd is Corona virus positive, the spread is almost guaranteed among those who are alongside him / her simply because of the proximity. As we already know, the Corona Virus is one of the most contagious viruses in the recent times. The long and stressful journey will ensure a far quicker and greater spread within the group, as not many may be able to focus on the precautions or even have the means to adhere to them during this time.

Since many of these journeys may take weeks or even longer and traverse across States, the infection, besides multiplying amongst the group, is also very likely to spread all along the route. That is simply because people will need to find water and food on the way. That implies coming in contact with people in the habitations along the route. Alternatively, if they are unable to access any food and water on this hazardous journey, that in itself may lead to morbidity and perhaps deaths too. And even then it does not ensure that a lateral spread in the habitations on the way will not happen.

In short, not only does this exodus lead to a spread of the infection, it may also result in a large number of preventable deaths and morbidity. So, whichever way we look at it, it defeats the entire purpose of the lock down.

What can the government do?
Much time has been lost. Nevertheless there a lot can still be done. I suggest below a simple plan that the government is welcome to adapt or modify as per operational possibilities. This is both doable and goes hand in hand with the lockdown.

A.    Stop the exodus. Bring people to shelters.
1.     Police
Instruct the ENTIRE police force across the country not to use force, abuse, insult or beat up people on these journeys and instead be helpful and supportive.

2.     Transport Department
State Buses from each city / town / district, which is witnessing people walking towards, through or from it, to be sent asap to collect people and bring them to shelters.
Protect the Driver / Staff (e.g. secure the drivers area).
Fill the bus to half capacity. Families can sit together but maintain distance with others (as much as is possible).
The buses may need to do a few rounds, depending on the circumstances.

B.    Create Temporary Shelters. Engage Civil Society / NGOs
3.     Municipal Department
If existing shelters lack space, convert Stadia / Exhibition grounds / Parks / any other open ground on outskirts of the city into temporary shelters. Engage local tent houses to create temporary shelters.

Establish temporary toilets and other sanitation facilities. Ensure cleaning / waste management with the same system that already exists in the city.

Establish Kitchen with Utensils (from Tent houses), Chulhas (basic temporary ones can be built with brick, stones etc.) and wood or Gas burners and cylinders.

Create raw food material supply.

Engage cooks for the first few days. If needed, seek help from NGOs or citizen’s initiatives in the city.

4.     Medical facility
Provide basic medical checkup facility in the shelter or connect with the city’s existing plan for Covid-19.

5.     Clearly communicate the government’s assurance for basic necessities during the entire lock down period and the need to stay put at the shelter. This may need to be repeated during the course of time.

6.     Civil Society / NGOs
If the govt. lacks people to run such a camp, seek help from NGOs or civil society. There will surely be enough helpful people in every city.

7.     Once the people have settled down (in a day or two) they can be assigned responsibilities to run the structure themselves. That will reduce the burden of cooking, cleaning, maintaining the place. The government would then only need to maintain the raw material supplies and sanitation and perhaps a couple of person to oversee / lead it.

8.     A curfew after that is unlikely to find these people roaming on the roads.

C.    If people refuse to stop
1.     The suddenness of the lockdown and its resultant impact on the people who were forced to choose to walk hundreds of kilometers in a bid to reach home, and have already endured hunger, thirst, heat and rain and emotions that we may not even be able to fathom, it is very possible that they hesitate and even out rightly refuse to stay in any shelter for long. In such a case, the government must ensure that they are provided transport and safe passage to their homes and food to last the lockdown.

How to act?
All the parties need to act together, with speed and ensure that each process of creating temporary accommodation as well as bringing in people should be completed within a 24 hours period. It is a daunting task but not an impossible one. A will and a coordinated effort between the Centre and the State Governments can get this done.

Besides saving lives of these people who have been pushed to the brink, it is also imperative to take this action to ensure that the lockdown, that is meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19, can serve its real purpose. Time is of essence, in this fight against the virus. The Government cannot afford to ignore the situation of these migrants, because in doing so, it will simply render its own lockdown ineffective.

(The author is an erstwhile medical doctor who continues to engage with public health issues. He currently lives as an artist / filmmaker.)


vagish K Jha said...

Very well thought out suggestions, Parvez Bhai. Wonder if someone takes note of these.

parvez said...

Thank you Vagish Bhai. Let's hope so.