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Coronavirus: Govt tells SC one-third of migrant workers could be infected

  • The Supreme Court directed the Centre to ensure food, water, beds, medication and counselling in shelters for migrant workers
  • If a large group of people enter villages, there could be a risk of infections penetrating rural India

NEW DELHI : Almost a third of the migrants returning to their home towns and villages could be infected with the novel coronavirus, the government told the Supreme Court on Tuesday as it sought to buttress the need to halt the exodus.

The Centre will stop migrant workers from returning to their homes since it is risky for them and for the people in the villages, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the court in response to petitions seeking shelter, food and other facilities for the migrants—said to number more than half a million—walking home, often hundreds of miles away.

The government lawyer also told the court that as of Tuesday morning “nobody is on the road".

The Supreme Court on its part directed the Centre to ensure food, water, beds, medication and counselling in shelters for the migrants. It also ordered the Centre to create a website with healthcare professionals within 24 hours to answer queries regarding covid-19 and take action against people spreading fake news.

The apex court on Monday asked the Centre to file a status report on steps being taken to tackle the large scale movement of migrant workers across the nation.

“Home secretary said, as of 11 am today, nobody is on the road," Mehta replied. “They have been taken to the nearest available shelter. I am making this statement on record."

Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint
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Graphic: Sarvesh Kumar Sharma/Mint

The government’s claims about possible infection rate among the migrants left health experts baffled.

“Has there been any scientific evidence of these workers carrying the virus? If there is, then we must start testing all workers on a massive scale to ensure timely isolation. Because, merely saying that the workers could be carrying the virus could further lead to their stigmatization and worsen the present situation," said Dr Anant Bhan, a global health researcher based in Bhopal.

“Not all the migrants will be infected as by and large they were not in direct contact with infected persons most of whom had directly or indirectly contracted the disease through overseas travel or travellers," said Ashwajit Singh, managing director, IPE Global, an international development and healthcare consultancy.

According to government central control room, 663,000 people have been provided shelter so far.
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According to government central control room, 663,000 people have been provided shelter so far. (Photo: Reuters)

Mehta’s statement also does not quite square with the government claim that there is not enough evidence yet to suggest that the virus is spreading through community contact, the so-called stage 3 of the pandemic.

Stringent surveillance of the migrants who had left their cities is needed to prevent the spread of the virus, said Dr. Jugal Kishore, director professor and head, department of community medicine, Vardhman Mahavir Medical College (VVMC) and Safdarjung Hospital.

Lav Agarwal, joint secretary, ministry of health and family welfare, said the exact number of migrants moving from urban to rural areas is not known. “We have asked the state government to take adequate measures at the time of their entry. They should be quarantined and should be under observation. If found positive should be treated immediately. Many buildings are being converted into quarantine centres and the migrant workers are being provided food and shelter."

So far, rural India has remained safe from covid-19, but if a large group of people travelling together are permitted to enter their villages, there could be a serious risk of infections penetrating rural India, according to the government.

According to the last available census figures, there are roughly 40 million migrant workers in India. The present so-called ‘barefoot migration’ consists of around 500,000 to 600,000 people.

In the court Mehta said the government has ensured food packets are provided to homeless daily workers. Mid-day meal kitchens, railway caterers, religious trusts and corporates have been being roped in to provide food to them.

According to government central control room, 663,000 people have been provided shelter so far, he added.

Mehta also said that the government had enhanced testing capacity to 118 across the country now, capable of conducting 15,000 tests per day.

Advocate Rashmi Bansal, one of the petitioners, argued that the report submitted by the Centre does not mention anything about sanitization or social distancing in the shelters. She argued that a mechanism needs to be set up for sanitization as the shelters are crowded. Mehta replied that the government is taking steps. Petitioners Bansal and advocate Alakh Alok Srivastava had sought directions to ensure food, water, shelter, transport and medical aid for migrant workers and their families. The SC bench comprising Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justice Nageshwar Rao will next hear the case on 7 April. The hearing was conducted through videoconferencing.

Srishti Choudhary contributed to this story.

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