India reels from migrant worker coronavirus exodus

NEW DELHI — Indian authorities struggled Monday to help millions left jobless by a crippling coronavirus lockdown, potentially undermining efforts to stop the virus ravaging the world's second most-populous nation.

Since the lockdown began on Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of labourers have been heading back from cities where they worked to their home villages, some walking hundreds of miles and with little money or food.

The exodus has raised worries that those returning may spread coronavirus into rural areas, particularly with authorities resorting to cramming people onto buses and into relief camps and homeless shelters.

At the weekend in Delhi, migrant workers and their families fought and shoved their way onto buses organised by India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

"I couldn't afford the room we had so there was no choice, we had to leave," said Ranjit Kumar, who walked with his wife and two-year-old son for two days to get from Haryana state to the bus terminal.

Around 90,000 people were transported in buses on Sunday from Ghaziabad outside Delhi, the Times of India reported.

Late on Sunday the federal government ordered all district and state borders closed in a bid to stop the exodus, and directed local authorities to organise temporary shelters.

On Monday the crowds had disappeared on the outskirts of Delhi. The city government said it was now feeding 400,000 people, with more than 550 schools providing shelter.

The central state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, and another big magnet for migrant labourers, has set up 262 relief camps and was providing shelter to 70,399 people, the chief minister tweeted.

Authorities ordered a racetrack outside Delhi that hosted a Formula One race in 2011 be used to house 5,000 migrant workers, the Times of India reported.

Uttar Pradesh has announced aid and set up 600 shelter homes that will act as quarantine centres, local official Alok Kumar told AFP. He was unable to say how many people were still on the road.

Former national health secretary Sujatha Rao said it was not known if the virus had spread from the urban travelling middle class to rural migrants, but if it had, such large congregations of people would be a worry.

"If any one of them has indeed got the infection, it certainly can spread very rapidly as the poor in urban metros live in very crowded accommodation. Social distancing is not an option for them," Rao told AFP.

Clashes in Gujarat 

Late on Sunday several hundred laborers clashed with police in Surat, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat, after they were prevented from leaving, authorities said.

"Around 30 teargas shells were fired to disperse the crowd that had damaged several police vehicles. Over 90 people have been arrested," said deputy police commissioner Vidhi Chaudhary.

State authorities laid on buses to take people home, but also asked them to stay put, saying they would be provided with food and shelter.

But on Monday thousands of men, women and children still thronged Gujarat's roads.

"The contractors who brought us here for work refused to help us," said Ramprasad Kevat, who walked almost 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Ahmedabad and wanted to get back to Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh.

A video posted on Twitter by a Times of India journalist and by The Hindu daily appeared to show migrants being hosed down with disinfectant by men in protective suits.

The local district magistrate tweeted that the fire brigade had been instructed to sanitise buses but sprayed the passengers because of "over-enthusiasm".

On Sunday the official number of coronavirus cases in the nation of 1.3 billion people passed 1,000 with 29 deaths, but many experts doubt the numbers and say that India is testing far too few people.

"This migration has taken it (the virus) to small towns and villages," virologist Shahid Jameel at the Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance told AFP.

Former health secretary Rao said the government needs to test more widely. Testing has mostly concentrated on people with a history of overseas travel and those who had contact with them.

"I think we could have scaled up testing quantitatively. It continues to be a concern and a high priority," she said.

— Agence France-Presse

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