As India entered Day Four of the nationwide lockdown on March 28, a new crisis emerged: thousands of migrant workers and their families fleeing the cities faced with job losses and economic hardship. Workers from the industrial areas of Delhi and the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority hit the highways traversing long distances on foot with no support from either the Centre or State governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The bus and train terminal at Anand Vihar, bordering U.P. was clogged with endless rows of workers and their families, all desperate to get back to their villages. All that the Union government and the Union Home Ministry had done was to issue advisories and directives to State government to deal with the displacement of the migrant population.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office has set up a public charitable trust under the name Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (PM CARES) Fund with the Prime Minister as chairman and the Ministers of Defence, Home and Finance as its members. The aim is to mobilise funds for the medical and economic emergency.
At a joint briefing by the Ministries of Health and Home Affairs on March 28, the importance of complying with the lockdown and physical distancing was underscored. But the officials appeared nonchalant about the large-scale movement and displacement of migrant families that defeated the purpose of physical isolation. The burden of handling and managing the exodus of migrant workers fell on the State governments, who themselves had little time to prepare for the consequences of the lockdown. The displaced migrant workers also faced the prospect of huge health risks, which the Central government left to the States and Union Territories to tackle.
The representative from the Home Ministry said the State Disaster Response Funds could be used for the relief efforts for migrants. There was some allusion to allocations made in the Union Budget for disasters and funds being provided by the Central government at a later stage. The Home Ministry was “monitoring the lockdown and movement of essential services”, the official said, adding that “States and U.Ts had been told to prepare for unorganised sector workers” and set up relief camps. State governments could take the help of nongovernment organisations and volunteers, the official added. Replying to a question on soaring prices of essential commodities, the official merely stated that it was being “monitored” by State governments and U.Ts as well the Union Home Ministry.
On the issue of testing, apart from the 824 random samples tested upon by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and followed by testing of patients with Severe Acute Respiratory Infections (SARI), the government has not moved into the community with large-scale testing. The latest guidelines again reiterate that only those persons who have a travel history in the last 14 days, those who tested positive, those who came in contact with the positive cases, and health workers dealing with COVID cases would be tested. There would be no symptomatic or asymptomatic testing on individuals or in the general community unless there were cases of breathlessness among symptomatic persons. “There is no need for random sampling. We are testing only SARI cases,” said Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, senior ICMR scientist. He also said that only 30 per cent of the total testing capacity had been resorted to until now. There were 111 government testing sites, each of which had a capacity to test 12,000 cases. Forty-four laboratories in the private sector had been approved and 400 persons had been tested so far. The Joint Secretary (Health), Lav Agarwal, did not make a projection about the number of ventilators required, but he said that 40,000 ventilators had been ordered and that they were trying to meet the requirements of personal protective equipment PPE), masks and so on.
The Union government representatives claimed that they were conducting, along with State governments, surveillance, rigorous contact tracing and containment strategies.