tharoor139_Yawar NazirGetty Images_indiacoroanvirusmigrantworkers Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

India Besieged

Though Indians have rallied in solidarity to combat the coronavirus pandemic, reasonable questions about the country's lack of preparedness are being posed. But the answers will have to wait until the overriding challenge – avoiding millions of COVID-19 victims – has passed.

NEW DELHI – “India is walking home,” declared the headline in The Indian Express as newspapers and television screens filled with images of millions of migrant workers, clutching their meager belongings, trekking along India’s deserted highways to return to their homes, hundreds of kilometers away.

Such images were last seen in India seven decades ago, when the country’s partition and the emergence of Pakistan forced millions of displaced people to stagger across the borders to their new homelands. This time, it was a different kind of man-made tragedy.

On the evening of March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared, with just four hours’ notice, a 21-day lockdown from midnight onward, to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But he had failed to plan for the impact of his announcement on India’s vast informal economy.

For the country’s affluent professionals, the lockdown meant working online from home, or at best an enforced holiday. For the poor, it was another story. Factories, offices, and shops shut down; construction sites became idle; and restaurants, barber shops, and beauty salons closed. All of them stopped paying wages. Many employers and contractors shrugged off the problem: they were incurring losses, too, they said, so they couldn’t afford to pay workers who weren’t working.

Unable to earn money to feed themselves or pay rent in congested urban ghettos, India’s vast legion of workers packed up and set off for home, often to villages in faraway states. With trains and buses out of service, they walked.

It wasn’t easy. There was no food or water, and no rest stations, available along the way. Fatigue and blistered feet were the price that had to be paid for the allure of home, family, and basic sustenance.

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When some states considered pressing their idle buses into service to transport the trekkers, the crowds at the bus stations made a mockery of the lockdown. The central government promptly closed state borders and instructed local authorities to provide shelters with food and water to the migrants wherever they were.

Ironically, the attempt to prevent a pandemic has created a humanitarian crisis. Modi took to the radio to apologize for the lockdown, “which has caused difficulties in your lives, especially the poor people,” but asked them to bear with him. But, because his government failed to anticipate the exodus, it had jeopardized the lives of those it was anxious to save.

Paradoxically, Modi’s government had responded positively and rapidly to the desire of Indian expatriates and migrant workers abroad to come home; thousands flew back on evacuation flights before the lockdown. The contrast with the neglect of the domestic migrant workers, on whom the vast informal economy rests, could not have been more striking. “Wanting to go home in a crisis is natural. If Indian students, tourists, pilgrims stranded overseas want to return, so do laborers in big cities … We can't be sending planes to bring home one lot, but leave the other to walk back home,” tweeted the editor of the online news portal ThePrint.

The migrant workers’ plight was merely the most blatant reminder of the daunting challenges that India is facing in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s no doubt that quarantining 1.3 billion people is an extreme step and not easy to enforce evenly. “Social distancing” is impossible for the vast majority of Indians, many of whom live a dozen to a room.

Perhaps not surprisingly, enforcing the lockdown has proved exceedingly problematic. Compounding the difficulties, there was also confusion about who was permitted on the streets and for what, with shoppers seeking essential supplies and even medical personnel stopped and in some cases brutally beaten by overzealous policemen wielding lathis (long batons).

Still, despite uneven enforcement, farmers cannot bring in the spring harvest, and reports abound of fresh produce and milk being wasted because the lockdown prevents deliveries. Many basic goods are unavailable, newspaper delivery has ceased, and a recession is inevitable.

The only consolation is that the air above India’s most polluted cities has magically cleared. Delhi, where the air quality index typically exceeds 500 (the World Health Organization’s safety threshold is 25), is now basking in blue skies and sunshine, with the AQI below 30 most days and, after a rain shower last week, even coming down to seven.

The responses of India’s state governments have also varied enormously. The southern state of Kerala, where the first coronavirus cases in India appeared (medical students returning from China), has been hailed as a model for its handling of the crisis.

With a strong health-care infrastructure developed over decades, Kerala coped well with COVID-19. It started testing and tracing early, imposed effective quarantine measures, backed them up with welfare support, and prevented an exodus of migrant workers by feeding them in the state. Despite hosting large numbers of travelers (Kerala is the source of India’s largest overseas migrant population, mainly in the Gulf), the state has avoided an uncontrolled outbreak.

Kerala’s caseload numbers are high, but that’s because it has tested far more people than other states. In Kerala, 220 persons per million have been tested, compared to just one per million in the northern state of Bihar. Low case numbers often reflect testing limitations.

Though Indians have rallied in solidarity, reasonable questions are being posed. How could India have bungled its COVID-19 response so badly, despite having a powerful central government, led by a ruling party with an absolute parliamentary majority and the country’s most popular politician? Why were no preparations made for an approaching pandemic, despite public warnings by opposition leaders of the need to do so? Why is India today contemplating not just the catastrophe of contagion, but also the prospect of economic collapse, starvation, increased poverty, and the risk of social unrest?

The answers will have to wait. The overriding challenge is to ensure that this country of 1.3 billion people avoids the terrifying scenario – millions of victims – that doomsayers have foretold.

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