Life after lockdown: India faces rural epidemic as millions return to villages as curfew is eased

Internal migrant workers have been left destitute, but as they head home from India's cities many are carrying the virus with them

Ugan Shaw at home in the village of Kargalo, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand
Ugan Shaw at home in the village of Kargalo, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand

The 130km journey back to his home village of Kargalo in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand almost killed Ugan Shaw, 50.

The father-of-two walked for 20km, hitched a ride on a motorbike and then clung to the side of a packed truck with 50 other returnees.

His joy at being reunited with his family was short-lived - unable to stand and suffering from a fever, he was rushed to hospital where he tested Covid-19 positive.

He remained in hospital for 20 days before he was discharged on April 22.

And Mr. Shaw believes he came into contact with over 100 people during his journey home and while in his village.

A family of migrant labourers walk on a road in Allahabad as they wait for transportation to go back to their hometowns on Sunday Credit: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP

India has incrementally relaxed its lockdown since May 1 to boost its ailing economy. But this has made it easier for some 40 million stranded migrant labourers to return to their homes from the cities.

Not only did they take their meagre belongings with them but like Mr. Shaw, many are carrying coronoavirus to India’s vulnerable rural hinterlands, where healthcare provision is some of the worst in the world.

Driven by a surge in infections caused by returnees, India registered a new one-day record of 6,767 infections over the past 24 hours, taking its total to over 131,000 - well ahead of China, the epicentre of the pandemic.

Without warning on March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide curfew to halt the spread.

Immediately, at least 130 million Indians lost their jobs: labourers found construction sites shut; auto-rickshaw drivers were banned from operating; and street vendors removed from the roadside.

Migrant labourer families in Bangalore arriving to buy train tickets home on May 23 Credit:  JAGADEESH NV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Migrant workers were suddenly stuck in cities, without a form of income or means to feed themselves and desperate to return home. 

For 25 years, Mr. Shaw worked as a porter in the city of Asansol in Jharkhand.

Lifting passengers' luggage into their vehicles for a transport company, he sent ₹5500 (£59) to support his family each month.

Mr. Shaw, unemployed after lockdown and without any way of feeding himself, defied the  curfew to return home in the hope he could survive off the village’s harvest.

defied the  curfew to return home in the hope he could survive off the village’s harvest.

Instead, he may now have unwittingly spread coronavirus to villages across Jharkhand, a scene being played out across India. 

In the state of Odisha, 87 percent of total cases are now among returnees and 70 percent of infections of Bihar are among migrant labourers. In Bihar, over one-quarter of returning migrant labourers from Delhi tested positive.

“These people had no livelihood and they could not survive in the cities because it essentially costs money,” explains Lalitesh Pati Tripathi, the Vice President of the Congress Party in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

“They were left without any safety net because no planning and thought went into the execution of the lockdown. They did not have time to prepare.

“Thousands are now returning [to my district] and everyday we are hearing about a migrant from Mumbai or Chennai or New Delhi testing positive. We only have 22 testing centres for 230 million people in Uttar Pradesh and by the time tests come back they have already gone back to their villages and spread the virus.”

Millions of people who had moved from the countryside to work in India's cities are trying to get home Credit:  JAGADEESH NV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mr. Modi told state governments to house and feed stranded workers, but it never happened. A poll of 11,000 migrant workers by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) NGO found 96% had not received any food aid.

State governments said the sudden lockdown left them entirely unprepared to feed and protect millions of workers.

Unsurprisingly, migrants began massing in cities like New Delhi and it looked like rioting would occur nationwide.

On May 1, the Indian Government bowed to pressure and permitted over 2,000 ‘Shramik’ relief trains and buses to take migrants back to their home states.

But migrants were not tested  before boarding transport and only screened for symptoms such as a high fever.

The Shramik trains took the migrants home - and they have rapidly widened the spread of the deadly disease.

Mr Shaw's eldest son Sunil, right, says neighbours asked his family to leave the viallge when they learnt his father was infected

 

“We know there are larger and larger numbers every day over the past week as people come back,” said Dr Yogesh Jain, an Indian rural public health expert. These migrants have not only paid with the loss of their livelihoods in the cities but they will now pay with the loss of the lives of family members in the rural hinterlands.”

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is yet to respond to the rural surge but the situation is expected to worsen with 70% of migrant labourers still stranded in cities. For returnees like Mr. Shaw, they must now overcome crippling stigma.

“After my father tested positive, the behaviour of the villagers became very bad towards our family,” said his son Sunil. “Villagers have demanded that my family leaves Kargalo.”

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