NEW DELHI – At dawn in Mumbai, India on Wednesday, Kaleem Ansari sat among a crowd of thousands outside Central Station as he waited for his train to arrive. Mr. Ansari, a factory worker, carried old clothes in his backpack and 200 rupees – not quite $ 3 – in his pocket.
His factory, which makes sandals, had just closed. Mumbai was closing as a second wave of the coronavirus wavy across India. Mr Ansari, from a small village nearly a thousand kilometers away, was in Mumbai a year ago when he was first locked down, and he had vowed not to suffer another.
“I remember what happened the last time,” he said. “I just need to get out of here.”
Indian cities are on lockdown again to fight Covid-19 – and workers are flocking again to return home to rural areas, which health experts say could accelerate the spread of the virus and devastate evil villages equipped, as this lasted time. Thousands of people flee city hot spots as India hits another record high, with over 184,000 new infections per day reported on Wednesday. Bus stations are crowded. Crowds are growing in the stations.
And in at least some of their destinations, according to local authorities and migrants who have already made the trip, they are arriving in places barely ready to test arrivals and quarantine the sick.
“We are less prepared,” said K. Srinath Reddy, chairman of the Public Health Foundation of India and a member of the national Covid-19 task force. “Speed and scale throw us off balance.”
India risks repeating traumatic mass movement that occurred last year after its implementation one of the toughest national lockdowns in the world, eliminating millions of jobs virtually overnight. This lockdown fueled the most disruptive migration across the Indian subcontinent since it split between India and Pakistan in 1947. Tens of millions of poorly paid migrant workers and their families fled the cities by train, bus, freight truck, bicycleeven with bloated feet to reach villages of origin hundreds of kilometers away, where the cost of living was cheaper and where they could help and be helped by their loved ones.
Hundreds of people have died on the suffocating roads. Even more died at home. Migration has also played a role an important role in the spread of the virus, as local officials in remote districts reported being inundated with sick people.
This time, the Indian government has not locked down the whole country. But Indian cities are increasingly enforcing lockdown-style restrictions, which means the wave of migrant worker departures is likely to worsen. Authorities are reluctant to use the word lockdown – like yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater – but they are tightening.
On Tuesday evening, for example, the state government of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, banned public gatherings and ordered all businesses but essential services closed for the next two and a half weeks.
Authorities had little choice, according to health experts. New daily infections exceed the heights of the first wave. Per capita testing is far behind that of the United States or other Western countries, so the actual number of new infections is likely to be several times higher.
The official death rate, while still low compared to the United States and elsewhere, is on the rise. In the west coast town of Surat, the cremation grounds have been so fierce in recent days that some of the the iron frames on which the bodies are placed have melted. In Chhattisgarh, a rural state in central India, the morgues overflowed with rotting corpses.
As the virus approached, many people decided to flee.
“I didn’t want to get sick on my own,” said Ajay Kumar, a seller of cell phone cases, who left Bangalore last weekend for a village in Jharkhand state. “In Bangalore, the cases are multiplying. And my wife said, “Business is not that good. Why don’t you come back “
“At least we’re together,” Kumar said.
The extent of India’s ability to monitor migration is unclear. But in some places, the sudden influx of migrants seems to surprise local authorities. The lack of preparation seems to reflect the larger feeling that this country, whether through fatigue or familiarity, has been more nonchalant in this second wave than in the first.
Last year, officials in the large eastern state of Bihar, which supplies millions of workers in other parts of India, intercepted migrants as they arrived at train stations. They were screened for the virus and sent to a mandatory two-week quarantine whether or not they had symptoms to prevent them from mingling with uninfected villagers.
This time, migrants from cities like Mumbai – where the Covid-19 positivity rate recently reached 30% – just get off trains or buses and walk through their communities, said Nafees Ahmad Sheikh, a cafe worker who left Mumbai last week, and two other newcomers.
Mr Sheikh left after rumors of an impending lockdown began to spread. He said the train he took was packed with migrant workers and people traveling for a short festival period. Some migrant workers had locked themselves in the bathroom of the train to avoid paying for the tickets because they had run out of money.
“The rich may face another foreclosure, but what will the poor do?” Mr. Sheikh said. He said he would rather die in his home village than in a town “that treats us like disposables.”
Some officials said migrants arriving at stations were subjected to temperature checks and those showing symptoms were sent for further testing or to quarantine centers. But an official said few of the centers were actually functioning because many of the entrepreneurs who started them last year still haven’t been paid and don’t want to get involved again.
Chanchal Kumar, an official in the office of the chief minister of Bihar, said infections “started to increase after the workers returned.”
“With each passing day, we are trying to minimize the damage,” he said.
India’s central government is sending mixed messages. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has a huge tyrant chair, asked Indians last year to stay indoors. Clear roads and an astonishing silence descended on the nation by 1.4 billion. When Mr. Modi asked people to stand on their porch and bang pots and pans in solidarity with healthcare workers, they did too.
This time, even as he calls on people to be careful and maintain their social distancing, Mr. Modi is organizing huge political rallies in states where his party is competing for elections. His party is asking people to come together by the thousands.
India’s vaccination campaign is progressing slowly. So far only around 8% have been vaccinated. It was only this week that the government allowed the use of imported snapshots. Until then, the government had relied on two domestically produced vaccines, the supply of which was rapidly shrinking.
Few migrants talk about vaccines. They just want to go home.
On Wednesday morning, at Mumbai Central Station, Mr. Ansari anxiously awaited his train. This time, the city had not yet closed public transport.
The last time. Mr Ansari said he was strapped for cash and was constantly beaten by police when he ventured out to look for food. He began to eat a small bowl of rice a day, he said, and was afraid of starving to death.
“I don’t even like to talk about what happened last time around,” he said. “Nobody cares about us, neither here nor there.”
Karan deep singh contribution to reports.