Coronavirus crisis: Will the next wave of infections be in rural India?

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Published: May 20, 2020 6:30:43 AM

The high level of infections among migrants is worrying, most states don’t have the wherewithal to deal with this

There is no ready answer, though many argue that infection levels in even cities like Delhi were lower several weeks ago when the migrants first wanted to go back home. There is no ready answer, though many argue that infection levels in even cities like Delhi were lower several weeks ago when the migrants first wanted to go back home.

A big source of comfort for India, in the early days of the pandemic, was that with 70% of the population living in villages, the impact of Covid-19 would be a lot less than that in other countries with more urban populations. Not only are rural areas a lot less densely populated than cities, there is considerably less mobility—both critical factors in keeping the spread low. That analysis, however, didn’t take into account the migrants so desperately wanting to go home that while some walked hundreds of kilometres, others thronged borders, and later train stations, when the government finally allowed them to leave and arranged for special trains to take them home.

With large numbers of migrants already home, or in quarantine centres near their villages, and a return path clear for the rest of them, another problem has begun to crop up, one that raises a fresh set of questions over the decision not to allow them to go back home initially. In Bihar, The Indian Express reported, 8% of the migrants tested positive; and in the case of migrants from Delhi, the number was as high as 26%. It is possible that neither the 8% nor the 26% number is representative of the actual situation, and will come down to around all-India levels when larger numbers are tested. At the level of the state, while infections grew at 6.6% during Lockdown-3, they grew at 8.6% in the two days since Lockdown-4 for which data is available; it is likely this faster growth is influenced by the rise in the number of migrants coming back. In terms of the numbers testing positive daily as a share of the daily tests done, this rose from 2.1 in Lockdown-2 to 3.5 in Lockdown-3, and a massive 7.8 in the two days after that.

If the infection levels are high, was the central government right in wanting to keep the migrants back in the cities, or did it cause the problem because the migrants got infected only when they were forced to stay together in large numbers—and in close proximity—when they had no money and were quarantined for several weeks? There is no ready answer, though many argue that infection levels in even cities like Delhi were lower several weeks ago when the migrants first wanted to go back home. In the absence of large enough testing, however, it is not really clear when the infection really spread.

What is clear, though, is that rural India is completely ill-equipped to deal with the challenge. An Express report on Bihar suggests that the states can accommodate 4.75 lakh migrants for quarantining, and it has already received more than this. According to Census 2011, around 80 lakh persons have migrated from Bihar alone, so if even half of them come back, the state will need to create quarantine facilities for 40 lakh people. Uttar Pradesh had around 130 lakh emigrants—if even 10% of them are infected, that’s 4 lakh people that need to be quarantined in Bihar and 6.5 lakh in Uttar Pradesh. If a fifth need hospitalisation—based on the numbers for some big cities like Mumbai—that’s 80,000 for Bihar and 130,000 in Uttar Pradesh. Neither state has anywhere near the requisite number of hospital beds, ICUs, ventilators, or even dialysis machines and PPE, etc. In other words, the problems being witnessed in cities like Delhi and Mumbai could be seen in parts of rural India as well, and they are even less equipped to deal with the crisis.

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