Amid India’s COVID-19 crisis, migrant workers are abandoning cities and heading en masse to their villages in a repeat of last year’s exodus when the lockdown shut down industries and left them without job – but this time they’re worried about safety.
India reported 379,257 new cases of COVID-19 and 3,645 new deaths on Thursday, according to data from the Ministry of Health. This is the highest number of deaths reported in a single day in the country since the start of the pandemic.
With more than 18 million people infected, several cities, including the national capital New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Surat and Bengaluru, have been taken under lock and key.
Health facilities have been overwhelmed, with hospitals overwhelmed and shortages of oxygen, medical supplies and hospital staff.
“I read all the cases and deaths and worried. I still had a job but didn’t want to stay in town, ”said Sanjit Kumar, 30, who left Surat in western India last week on a train to his village in eastern India. Bihar.
“Last year I was back on a truck. But this time, I didn’t want to wait for a full lockdown. I was scared looking at the death messages on WhatsApp, ”he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his village.
“Life is precious to everyone.”
Strict lockdown measures India took last year, such as severing transport links, wreaked havoc on the country’s estimated 100 million migrant workers, sparking an exodus from the towns where they worked in factories. clothing, construction sites and brickyards.
Hundreds of people have died in road accidents while walking, cycling and traveling in trucks and vans in the intense heat, charities said.
As the second wave of COVID-19 began to sweep India last month, migrants who had returned to work after months without a job again started to withdraw in a hurry, fearing that transport services could be suspended again. .
At least three migrant workers died when a crowded bus from New Delhi overturned in central India, local media reported.
But officials and activists said the effect of the lockdown this year was not as severe as it was in 2020, as industries had not been fully shut down and trains remained operational.
This month, the government revived the migrant worker helplines that were set up in April 2020 and announced financial assistance to employers who hire those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic.
“The volume of inbound calls to our hotlines is not as high as it was last year. We also told the employers to keep the workers, ”said DPS Negi, India’s chief labor commissioner.
“There is not as much panic in people’s minds since transport services are not closed. The government is more prepared this time around than last year.
Until a few weeks ago, Gram Vikas, a non-profit migrant rights organization in eastern Odisha state, had matched workers with jobs in Kerala and organized the transport for them, but it stopped.
Many of them have now booked tickets to return to their villages as workplace infections have increased and many fear contracting the infection, charity officials said.
“We are shifting gears to save lives now. We will use our resources to bring them back and quarantine them [them]. We no longer encourage them to stay in the cities, ”said Liby Johnson, executive director of Gram Vikas.
“We are entering a more difficult situation… It is no longer the fallout from COVID like the lockout last year. This time it’s COVID itself, it’s the pandemic that’s causing problems. Personal safety and life are now key issues, ”he said.
Migrant worker helplines that had been on mute for a few months have resumed ringing, with workers seeking help with overbooked train tickets or safety insurance.
“They want to know where the best chance is for them to get good health care,” said Johnson Topno, team leader of the migrant control room in eastern Jharkhand state.
“They worry about where they would be safer – in cities or their villages. They want guarantees, but as always, there are none for them, ”he said.