Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sanctioned a 21-day lockdown on March 24. He told the nation’s citizens that as a preventive measure to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), they were not to leave their homes. The true brevity of th a n is difficult to quantify. India is the world’s most populous democracy, home to well over a billion people. Residents in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi are packed into extremely dense clusters, where poverty and a lack of stable employment are rampant. Needless to say, the population hit hardest by the stringent measure to lock the country down were the poor — the daily wagers, the street vendors, the construction workers and the homeless.
With all nonessential businesses and workplaces shut, millions of laborers and workers are staring at the very real prospect of hunger, eviction from their homes and an indefinite unknown for what the future holds. Migrant workers are those who travel to the cities for temporary work and make up almost 120 million of India’s population, perhaps more. Without work or any substantial way to earn wages, many millions of these migrant workers were forced to leave cities in droves as they trekked back to their respective towns and villages by foot. Streets and sidewalks packed with people, shoulder to shoulder, forgoing all social distancing measures, are daunting to imagine, much less to grapple with as a facet of current reality.
A particularly disturbing story that the BBC reported told of migrant workers surviving off water and biscuits as they headed home, carrying children over their shoulders while the blaring heat of late March beat down on their backs. One man in the article made a particularly pronounced statement about the sordid reality of the situation: “We will die walking before the coronavirus hits us.” As reported in The Wire, at least 17 migrant workers and their families — including five children — have lost their lives in a desperate attempt to escape potential starvation and homelessness in the cities.
This is not, however, to argue that the lockdown was not a necessary measure. It absolutely was, and it is commendable that Modi took such a crucial step to slow COVID-19 spread. With the health system capacity generally weak across the country, an extreme shortage of hospital beds, a high population with tuberculosis and respiratory issues, as well as significant rates of smoking and air pollution, the trajectory of the disease in the nation’s population could be devastating. As of now, the number of reported cases stands at 5,916. However, this could be due to a lag in testing and the actual number of cases could be much, much higher.
By enacting the nation-wide lockdown, the Prime Minister took a step many countries across the globe have thus far been hesitant to take. In his interview with The New Yorker, Ramana Laxminarayan, an epidemiologist and economist who directs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Econonomics and Policy, argued that the lockdown was necessary to prevent a sharp peak in deaths heading into April. However, it is evident there should have been better planning as to how the lockdown was enacted.
The federal government focused on some of the necessities, like supplies and groceries and so forth. But many other factors were neglected, like how these migrant workers who traveled to cities for work would find a home without wages or how people would cross borders if they lived and worked in different states. These gaps in the existing protocols directly corresponded to the desperation faced by millions of workers as they walked home to various parts of the country, which could eventually result in the community spread of COVID-19 the leaders of India wanted to avoid in the first place.
Politicians rarely apologize for the shortcomings of their own policies and stances. And when they do stand to admit they were wrong, their statements are often shrouded in the murky pretenses of politics and bent to their own self-interests. Two days after the lockdown was enacted, Modi addressed the nation again, saying, “My conscience tells me that you will definitely forgive me as I had to take certain decisions which have put you in a lot of difficulty.” He added, “Especially, when I look at my poor brothers and sisters, I definitely feel that they must be thinking what kind of prime minister is this who has placed us in this situation.”
He went on to add that the current situation facing the U.S. and Italy forced him to take preemptive measures to control the spread of the virus in India. Although it is heartening to hear the prime minister take responsibility for his decision, the burden many millions of people had to endure because of his government’s lack of organization is resentful.
Going forward, my hope is for the Indian government to view the suffering of migrant workers with a more sensitive gaze. In recent media, there was a lot of fanfare about the federal government bringing back Indians stranded abroad in special flights — typically wealthy, elite individuals. Meanwhile, migrant workers were forced to walk hundreds of kilometers. Even when they reached their hometowns, some of the groups were forcibly cleaned, hosed down with disinfectant or sprayed with soap solution.
India has a long and unfortunate history of class and caste biases, which is now even more prominent under a national crisis. I hope the federal government will open their food stockpile warehouses and provide immediate relief to migrant workers because these are the populations most vulnerable to hunger and disease. An additional monetary relief is also essential to help workers and their families during this time.
Hopkins has a wonderfully growing and diverse body of international students, many of whom are from India and have returned home after campus shut down. Given the sweeping global impact of COVID-19, its trajectory in the U.S., as well as other countries across the world, is vital to monitor and care about. Until a vaccine for the virus is approved and we are able to administer it to over seven billion people across the world, I believe the pandemic will prove to be a very persistent issue, especially in countries with extremely dense populations such as India.
Srinidhi Polkampally is a sophomore double majoring in Writing Seminars and Molecular and Cellular Biology from Westchester County, N.Y.