India’s Total Lockdown Has Caused A Huge Migrant Worker Crisis
This was the chaos that unfolded on the streets of India when their government announced the biggest lockdown in the world.
People were given just four hours’ notice before going into lockdown in their homes.
It was a huge move for a country that’s home to more than 1.3 billion people. But this happened back in March and now that months have gone by, I want to find out how effective this massive lockdown was, and how it’s impacted the lives of India’s people living through it.
On the 24th of March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown.
Gunjeet Sra: “I was at my cousin’s house [when I heard the news]. I had gone to meet her in the evening, and we were sitting down discussing coronavirus and the next thing you know is that the prime minister is on the television and there’s a lockdown.”
That’s Gunjeet Sra, an independent journalist in New Dehli.
Gunjeet Sra: “Of course we were expecting the government would take some measures, but we weren’t expecting such a crackdown.”
Because India has such a high-density population, it needed to act quickly when coronavirus started to spread across the world. Millions of people live in slums or poor rural villages, and initial concerns were raised about how social distancing or quarantine measures could be effectively put in place.
The sudden lockdown announcement caused havoc in India’s streets, particularly because millions of low-income migrant workers rushed to get out of the cities, and back to their rural villages.
Gunjeet described the absolute frenzy that unfolded as migrant workers flocked to trains to try and get home.
Gunjeet Sra: “India is a huge country right, so people come to the capital or to metropolitan cities to work and they have to travel long distances. And they were suddenly told, ‘you are without a job, you’re not going to be able to pay your rent’ … what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to manage?”
Eventually when public transport was stopped, hundreds of thousands of people were left stranded and having to travel on foot to their villages – potentially putting themselves at risk of either contracting or spreading the virus.
India’s lockdown ended up being far longer and more gruelling than the initial 21 days the government had planned, because the pandemic hit India hard.
The country has had 3.6 million COVID-19 cases so far and at the end of August it reported over 78,000 new cases in 24 hours – the world’s highest single-day increase.
It’s also been reported that India’s economic slump as a result of the pandemic is the worst the country has ever seen.
But the recovery rate has improved a lot in the time since, and the death rate is relatively low considering it’s the fourth most-impacted country globally.
Some people are putting that down to the timing of the lockdown, which happened when India only had 500 confirmed cases and 10 deaths.
But there’s also been huge success with controlling the virus in some of the slums like Dharavi, which is the country’s biggest.
The Dharavi program is being praised by the World Health Organisation, after weeks of single digit cases each day and an extremely low mortality rate. Instead of waiting for people to come forward and test themselves, local authorities are working by foot, door knocking and testing the million residents crammed within 2.4 kilometres of each other.
Restrictions have started to lift in India, and Gunjeet told me it’s left a strange feeling in the country.
A lot of the migrant workers who fled back to rural India are starting to head back to the cities looking for work.
But Gunjeet explained that there’s a lot of resentment towards them now because it was their initial movement that was partly responsible for spreading coronavirus to the smaller towns they were travelling through.
GS: “If they are going to open the economy, people are going to come back – they are going to look for jobs, it’s just how things are – you see it if you go out on the street, you can’t tell it’s a pandemic.”
Health experts warn that COVID-19 in India is nowhere close to its peak and are worried that more people could actually die from starvation if this lockdown is extended and the economy doesn’t open up again.
The country has paid a heavy price economically and personally, and people like Gunjeet are hoping the government will continue to put safety measures in place – as only time will tell how effective the world’s biggest lockdown has actually been.