Scrapping institutional quarantining of returning migrants a bad move, can’t rely on home quarantining
Bihar’s decision to end mandatory testing and quarantining for returning migrant workers reaching the state after June 2 is a misstep that could prove devastating, given it sorely lacks the healthcare capacity to deal with a scenario in which cases run into several lakhs. The state government, as per an Indian Express report, claims to have received nearly 30 lakh returnees over the past few weeks. As per a PTI report, it has also reasoned that, with the Centre now having lifted several movement restrictions, it is unlikely that migrants would register and undergo quarantining apart from it becoming difficult for the state to really determine who is a returning migrant. While such a tsunami of returnees would likely overwhelm even the best-prepared states in the country, Bihar summarily dropping all checks is an invitation to disaster. The state has nearly 5,000 quarantining centres—all of which will be closed from June 15 (migrants who landed on June 1 will be completing their quarantine on that date)—that house nearly 13 lakh migrants; currently, as per the state, some 5.3 lakh migrants are still undergoing quarantining at these centres. Given the bulk of the infected in the state—2,743 out of 3,872 confirmed cases—are migrants who have returned after May 3, from high-burden states/Union Territories such as Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra, etc, stopping registration, quarantining and testing is simply abandoning the responsibility to deal with the pandemic in a scientific and strategic manner.
The Bihar government must bear in mind that it has only 30,857 hospital beds, 1,543 ICU beds and 771 ventilators (as estimated by Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy). And, the daily growth rate for Covid-19 was 8.4% in the fourth lockdown period, in which a large number of returning migrants arrived in the state, while it was 6.6% in the third lockdown period. Even if the daily growth rate didn’t increase over the next month, the state will have over 44,000 cases by the end-June, and going by a requirement of ICU care for 3.5% of Covid-19 cases (average of Delhi, Mumbai and Pune), the state would have exhausted nearly its entire ICU capacity by then. All of this refers to the total capacity in the state, not just the ones kept for Covid patients; so, the situation is even worse.
The state can’t just afford to throw up its hands and blame the relaxation of movement-restrictions to close down its quarantine centres. Even with lax implementation—an Indian Express report from April talked about quarantined returning-migrants leaving the facility at ease and coming back for meals—quarantining is a basic non-pharmacological intervention against the disease. In any case, the states are free to implement their own restrictions, and if Bihar needs to check inter- and intra-state travel by buses, etc, it is indeed free to do so. And, even if only a handful of migrants are now expected to return, the state should diligently test and quarantine them. Relying on home quarantining, as the state government seems to have advocated, will hardly work, given a recent ICMR report shows that contact-tracing in India, as per testing data over January 22-April 30, is quite poor, and Bihar stands a shade lower than even the national average.