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NEW DELHI — Migrant workers are being doused with disinfectant after being forced to walk hundreds of miles home as India grapples with the coronavirus.
Shocking pictures show huge crowds of people unable to practice social distancing because there is no other way of returning to their home villages, and when they finally do arrive, they are in some cases being sprayed with chemicals.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a total lockdown with no warning and very little time to prepare last Tuesday. As a result, migrant workers who travel to the cities for work suddenly found themselves unable to earn money or feed their families, leaving them with no choice but to return to their home states — literally carrying all their belongings on their backs, often accompanied by children and elderly parents.
The heartbreaking images of this mass exodus have exposed the class difference between the workforce of construction site laborers, waste collectors, cooks, and house painters who keep Indian cities running and the city-dwellers they work for.
While some states have set up soup kitchens to feed workers and instructed police to hand out food and relief packages, others have chosen the worst possible route to deal with crowds of hungry, frightened, and despairing people. In Gujarat — Modi’s home state in west India — clashes broke out after police arrested 90 migrant laborers who wanted to leave for their homes. In Uttar Pradesh, a state in north India, workers were lined up and sprayed down with a chemical that authorities claimed was “a disinfectant.”
India’s health ministry says it has recorded 1,071 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. According to the government, these people either picked up the virus on their travels outside the country or were directly exposed to someone else with history of travel to COVID-19 affected countries. The government claims there have been no cases of “community transmission” or instances where doctors could not trace where someone had picked up the virus.
But the images of large crowds of people journeying home have raised fears that a lockdown designed to slow the transmission of the coronavirus may actually end up spreading it. People face a more immediate concern: hunger and exhaustion. Twenty-two people are reported to have died while journeying home, including six children, the youngest of whom was just 1 year old.