COVID-19 lockdown: Let migrant workers go home

Clusters will allow easier pooled testing; with diligent testing and quarantining, chances of spread can be minimised

The extended lockdown, while desirable from the point of view of India trying to flatten the curve of COVID 19-transmission so that its healthcare system is not overwhelmed, has underscored just how vulnerable millions of migrant, unorganised sector workers in the country continue to be. If it was the migrants’ homeward march over hundreds of kilometres that marked the first phase of the lockdown, the visuals of thousands of migrants protesting in front of the railway station in Bandra, Mumbai, despite lathicharge by the police, mark its extension.

The plight of the migrants, in the short run, must be treated as a humanitarian crisis needing urgent attention. To be sure, states did try early on to relieve them of the pain brought about by the lockdown decision—even this temporary cessation of wage flow impacts their and their families’ survival.

The Delhi government, and some NGOs started providing food daily at homeless shelters while Maharashtra, armed with a roster of nearly 30,000 migrant workers stranded in Mumbai, created temporary shelters that also provided food. While the Supreme Court has ordered adequate medical facilities apart from food, drinking water, and sanitation to be provided at relief camps for migrants, and the Centre has directed all states and union territories to take such welfare measures, there is many a slip twixt intent and implementation.

There have been reports from Delhi-NCR, Surat, Mumbai, etc, of the necessary relief either being in short supply or not available at all. Add to this the fact that social distancing and advised hygiene measures would be practically impossible to follow in camps, significantly raising transmission risk, cities seeing high migrant labour inflow are ticking COVID-19 time-bombs.

Against such a backdrop, states like Rajasthan have urged the Centre to allow migrants to travel back to their villages—indeed, as FE has reported, Maharashtra has allowed 1.3 lakh sugarcane workers to return to their native villages within the state—with the hope that once the transmission curve is reasonably flattened, the migrants can return to work in the cities. That could be a solution worth exploring, but only if there is a strategy to ensure rigorous testing, quarantining, and social distancing during travel.

While testing may not prove a panacea at the population level, or even at a very large scale—as argued by eminent public health expert Dr K Srinath Reddy in these pages (—the fact is, pooled testing in a cluster could be used to identify infection or exposure. It would be easier to deal with the problem of false positives (associated with a high sensitivity test like RT PCR), or false negatives (associated with the rapid antibody tests) in clusters of migrant workers given the absolute numbers will be low.

Those who test positive can then be quarantined in the city of their work, while the rest are allowed to travel back to their states; with most states now insisting on quarantining all who arrive from other states, any case missed earlier can also be identified. Alternatively, a mandatory quarantining near the arrival station could be ordered to check for any infection that was missed earlier. Given incidence in rural areas, as has been reported by states, has been absent to quite low, there is a need to ensure that urban to rural transmission doesn’t take place. But, given the Centre, as per an April 19 notification, deems it fit to allow migrant workers to travel for work within the state they migrated to, it is hard to see why, with due testing and quarantining diligence, they can’t be allowed to go back home.

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