Governance

COVID-19: Centre tells SC 30% migrants on move may have virus

‘We would quarantine them at shelter homes to prevent large-scale contagion’

 
By Banjot Kaur
Last Updated: Tuesday 31 March 2020
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Every three out of 10 migrants who moved out en masse after the nationwide lockdown that began from March 25, 2020, could be a carrier of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), Tushar Mehta, solicitor general of India, told the Supreme Court March 31.

About 0.5-0.6 million people moved barefoot after the announcement of the lockdown, according to the Union government’s estimates presented in the status report submitted to the apex court on March 31. The total migrant workforce of the country was about 41.4 million, it added.

“This kind of migration by workers on their own in large numbers defeats the very object of preventive measures,” the Centre said in the report.

“If such groups of persons travelling together in large numbers are permitted to reach their homes in rural India, there is a very likely possibility they will carry COVID-19 infection and infect the populations of their villages, which have remained untouched so far,” it noted. 

It added:

If migrant workers are permitted to conclude their journey, reach their home village and merge with the population, there is a serious and imminent potential of the infection penetrating rural India also. In such an eventuality, the epidemic, which has already taken the form of a pandemic, would manifest itself in its most severe form, making it unmanageable to contain.

The Centre had come under sharp criticism for announcing the lockdown without anticipating a mass exodus of workers from the cities where they worked, to their homes.  

The status report puts the onus of large-scale migration on fake / misleading news and social media messages that created a panic. Several migrant workers, however, have said they were forced to undertake the long march due to uncertainty and no place to live. 

Six days after the lockdown came into being, the Centre advised states and union territories (UTs) to seal their respective borders as a last-ditch effort to prevent an unprecedented migration.

On the fifth day of the lockdown, the Uttar Pradesh government even arranged 1,000 buses to ferry its migrants who were walking barefoot from the national capital. The service was ceased after the Centre’s advisory of sealing of states’ borders. 

The Centre issued orders to states and UTs to create shelters for migrants in border areas where they would be provided food and other services. That this happened six days after the lockdown was announced has been acknowledged by the Centre’s status report as well.

The migrants would be quarantined for 14 days in shelter homes according to the medical protocol of the Centre, the report said. If a migrant developed any symptom of COVID-19 during 14 days of quarantine, his / her sample would be tested for the virus. 

It informed the court that till March 30, as many as 0.21 million shelter homes had been set up where about 0.66 million migrants had been shifted. 

'Proactive response to pandemic'

About 0.14 million isolation beds had been identified and the purchase order of 40,000 ventilators had been placed, the Centre said. It justified the 21-day period of lockdown, saying global strategies were analysed. However, it did not specify as to what was the scientific evidence behind selecting 21 days as the duration.

It also highlighted several measures it took to prevent a large-scale outbreak of the deadly virus.

Starting thermal screening at airports as early as January 18, imposing travel restrictions from January 30, enhanced community surveillance for quarantine and isolation of suspect cases and their contacts, enhancement of lab capacity for testing and a package of Rs 1.70 lakh crore to strengthen hospital preparedness were listed by the government as key responses.

The court will next hear the matter on April 7.

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