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Coronavirus: Lockdown triggers desperate scramble as Indians walk hundreds of miles

Thousands of migrant workers in India descended on state borders and bus stations as they tried to get back to their rural eastern villages during the country’s three-week coronavirus lockdown.

Some walked for hundreds of miles in prosperous western areas including Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana and Delhi as there was no public transport available to them.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has apologised for imposing the national COVID-19 lockdown, admitting it was harsh, especially for poorer people, but was needed to beat the pandemic.

The restrictions, brought in on Wednesday, are meant to prevent the virus spreading and overwhelming India’s already strained healthcare system.

But migrant workers have been forced to leave where they live as they are unable to pay their rent, and state borders have been sealed as the nation faces one of the gravest challenges of the outbreak.


Britons who have spent the winter in Goa say all the supermarkets are closed, and they are struggling to get information from the Indian and British authorities about when they may be able to leave.

Driving from Delhi towards its eastern border of Ghazipur, I came across hundreds of men with backpacks, sacks and bags walking in the heat. There were also women and children but it was overwhelmingly young men.

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These were migrant workers, daily wage earners, and contract workers who have been left outside due to the lockdown. This informal sector forms almost 80% of India’s workforce.

Though the central and state governments have announced relief packages, free food and shelter for the migrants, they were in no mood to listen to anyone.

At the border they were made to sit beside the road as Delhi’s eastern neighbour, the state of Uttar Pradesh, had sealed its borders.

Will the lockdown really save more lives?

One man told me: “We want to go home, we have no work for 21 days, no money, nothing to eat or drink. We want to see our children back home. There is nothing for us here now. They are not letting us pass.”

Others joined in, calling on the government to open the borders, adding: “We don’t want anything else, we will walk home.”

The government failed to factor in the surge while locking down the country for 21 days – giving only four hours’ notice.

Image: Buses were put on to take the workers to their rural villages

Almost in tears, 21-year-old Zaibi said: “I want to go home, our landlords are asking us to leave. I have walked for 50km and I will have to walk another 200 to reach home. But they are not allowing us to cross.”

There was not much evidence of social distancing which the prime minister and health experts have emphasised so often.

But when you are dealing with almost tens of thousands congregating in one place such measures are not always possible.

Missing too were the protective masks – most had handkerchiefs tied around their faces.

The sea of people and critical coverage in the media has forced the government to put on thousands of buses to take migrants back to their homes. Social media images showed the vehicles filled with migrants as well as some finding space on the roof.

Indian villagers self-isolate in trees

The Uttar Pradesh government has ordered all migrants to be verified and quarantined in camps. An order has directed all magistrates to trace the 150,000 workers.

The police have used a combination of punishments – beating, legal and jail threats, reprimanding, cajoling and even seizing vehicles of those who violate restrictions.

India has been criticised for having one of the lowest testing rates for the virus in the world.

The exponential increase in cases in Italy, the US, Spain and France, which have similarly low rates of testing, should ring alarm bells for the Indian government.

Health experts believe the country is in the third stage of the virus spread – community transmission, though the government has denied it.

At the moment there are 1,027 positive cases and 27 deaths due to COVID-19 and this is expected to rise as lockdown and protective measures have been flouted.


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