COVID-19 cases rise in India as migrant workers return home from cities

Migrant workers from other states line up to board buses for their onward journey by train to their destination in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 21 May 2020

COVID-19 cases rise in India as migrant workers return home from cities

  • Expert predicts an ‘avalanche of cases’ with an uptick from July to August

NEW DELHI: Almost two months after imposing a nationwide lockdown, India is witnessing a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, which experts attribute to more than 3 million migrant workers returning from major cities to their home states.

In the eastern state of Bihar, for example, at least 2 million migrant laborers are expected to return from across the country over the next few months.

According to data released by the Bihar government on Monday, out of 835 migrant workers who were tested on their return from Delhi, one in every four tested positive for COVID-19. The total number of COVID- 19 cases in Bihar jumped to 1,500 on Wednesday — an increase of more than 700 from the previous Friday.

“We feared that the return of migrant workers to the state would cause a spurt in the cases,” a Health Ministry official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Those laborers who are returning from different states are being put into quarantine, and the government is trying hard to make sure the virus does not spread to the villages,” he added.

In a surprise decision on Wednesday, the Bihar government removed the main spokesperson and the health secretary, Sanjay Kumar, from his post as COVID-19 cases in the state rose.

Until May 18, the state had tested 8,337 people who had come from outside the state, of whom 651 tested positive.

According to a rough estimate, the eastern state of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh account for at least 3 million migrant workers across the country. 

As industrial units and construction activities across the country shut down after the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24, millions of workers were rendered jobless and homeless. 

Many of them started walking back to their native states hundreds of kilometers away. 

Since early May, the government has been running special trains from different parts of the country to transport these “daily-wage” workers home. But a fortnight on, thousands are still stranded in Delhi.

“It’s an unprecedented situation and a humanitarian crisis of great magnitude,” the Delhi-based NGO Ajeevika Bureau said in a statement to Arab News.

Some analysts have criticized the way the central government implemented the lockdown.

“You cannot blame people for the crisis. The government introduced lockdown without planning, and the result is the chaos that we are seeing. This was the fear earlier: That if the migrant workers return, it will lead to an escalation in cases. That fear is coming true,” Gaya-based political analyst Pawan Pratyay told Arab News.

“So far, the poorer states like Bihar have been safe. But the return of the migrants at this stage makes the whole population nervous,” Pratyay added.

Currently, India is seeing around 5,500 new COVID-19 cases every day. On Wednesday, the total number of cases passed 106,000 and there have been 3,500 deaths.

“If the government wanted, they could have done things differently and planned the lockdown well and contained the spread of the cases. It was an unplanned, hurried exercise. It was more of a political decision than a decision based on the advice of epidemiologists, ” Professor T Jacob John of the Indian Academy of Science told Arab News.

“I see an avalanche of cases in India and the peak period might be from the first week of July to the second week of August,” he added.

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

Updated 42 min 31 sec ago

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

  • Indo-Pak border a breeding ground for bug; worst attack in over 20 years, says expert

NEW DELHI: Suresh Kumar was sipping tea on the balcony of his Jaipur house on Friday when the sun suddenly disappeared. Thinking it was probably a black cloud that was filtering out the daylight, he looked up and saw swarms of locusts covering the sky of the capital city of the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

Within a few minutes, short-horned grasshoppers were everywhere —walls, balconies and nearby trees — as they forced people to take refuge in their houses.

“It was unprecedented,” Kumar, who lives in Jaipur’s walled city area, told Arab News on Thursday. “Never before have I witnessed such a scene. Suddenly millions of aliens invaded our locality. Some residents of the neighborhood tried to bang some steel plates to shoo them off, but the jarring sound did not make much of an impact. However, the swarms left the area within an hour or so.”

More than a thousand kilometers away, in the Balaghat district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, farmer Dev Singh had a similar experience, although the bugs not only occupied his farmhouse, they destroyed the budding leaves of different kinds of pulses which he had sown in his field.

“Only a few weeks ago I harvested the wheat crop,” he told Arab News. “In a way, I’m lucky that the locusts have come now … otherwise the damage would have been much greater,” but he added that “with the pulse plant damaged in good measure, the yield will not be great this year.”

His area has been cleared of the locusts after the intervention of local authorities, which sprayed chemicals to kill the bugs and blared out sirens to shoo them off.

India is already grappling with an alarming surge of coronavirus cases and struggling to cope with the devastation caused by a recent cyclone. The country is also dealing with rising unemployment figures after more than 100 million people went jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is facing security issues, too, in the form of a seething border dispute with China. The locust invasion has added to beleaguered India’s laundry list of woes.

Scientists said it was a serious crisis.

“This is the worst locust attack in more than two decades,” Dr. K. L. Gurjar, of the Faridabad-based Locust Warning Organization, told Arab News. “Compared to the past, these locusts are younger and have traveled a longer distance. This should be a cause of concern. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will be badly impacted. We are controlling and containing the situation on a daily basis.”

According to media reports, around 50,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed by desert locusts in the two states during the last four weeks.

“The problem will persist until the invasion of swarms continues from across the border in Pakistan and Iran. The Indo-Pak border has become the breeding ground for the bug,” Gurjar added.

But he remained hopeful that the country would get rid of the menace through its measures, despite the present danger.

“There is a danger of locusts remaining alive for a longer period, though we are hopeful to ultimately sort them out.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University (JNAU) of Jabalpur has also been monitoring the situation in Madhya Pradesh, noting that locusts damage the crop completely wherever they go.

“Desert locusts stay immobile throughout the night and their movement begins again in the morning and they fly along the direction of the wind,” JNAU’s Dr. Om Gupta told Arab News. “Wherever they find shelter, they damage the crops in totality. In some areas, locusts have created havoc.”

She added that spray was generally used in the evening or early morning to kill the bugs. “They breed very fast and we focus on killing their eggs. What we are dealing with is nothing short of a catastrophe, and we are not going to get respite from this anytime soon.”