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How a densely populated country will fight Coronavirus

Mass migration of Labours at Delhi borders

There are 1140 positive cases of Coronavirus and 30 deaths in India till March 30th. This remains a mysteriously low number looking at its population size. Many believe, India is testing below scale. On the other hand, Indian government says, ‘It’s impossible to hide toll numbers in such a vibrant democracy.’

Several living conditions are similar in India and Nigeria—huge population, ever growing labour force, population attached to their caste, clan and tribes in country side, mass internal migration or movement of people on several occasions including in crisis.

The global community was amazed and worried to see the images and videos of tens of thousands migrant workers gathered on Delhi borders to flee national capital in India, amid coronavirus crisis. This sudden mass migration took officials on the ground by surprise last Saturday.

International media was surprised and painted a picture of hunger, distress and joblessness in the second most populous country in the world.

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Journalists and well-wishers from Spain, France and United States, where death figures are in thousands and rising, started calling Indians to share their worries.

BBC, on its website published, ‘Many of India’s 1.3 billion citizens have been left jobless and hungry.’

New York Times published an article on March 29th and written, “In one of the biggest migrations in India’s modern history, hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers have begun long journeys on foot to get home, having been rendered homeless and jobless by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus.’

In reality, these reactions of global media indicate how much more homework they need to do before reporting on densely populated countries like India or Nigeria. People may not react in these countries the way people react in America or Europe to a calamity.

People ‘dying of hunger’ have become a political term in the world’s biggest democracy (India), but on ground this idiom is far from its dictionary meaning.

As far as hunger is concerned, India struggles with problem of plenty every year. Wheat and rice fill it’s granaries up to the rim every harvest season. India is largest rice producer, largest millet producer, largest milk producer, largest sugarcane producer and second largest wheat producer in the world. This one of the most densely populated country has the second largest cattle inventory and rank on top in rice and beef exports. Government is always happy to distribute free food grains to get rid of storage problems and to score brownie points.

There is no shortage of food items for people under lockdown. Central and state governments are distributing free cooked food and dry ration. All essential commodities are being offered at labour’s doorsteps. District Magistrate South West Delhi, Mr. Rahul Singh shared a list of ‘Hunger Relief Centres’ where anyone can go and eat at 142 locations in the area of his district. We went to many of these centres and found food being distributed without any hassle. Even non-government organisations are active to help people under lockdown. Some of the higher officials are even worried about disposal of leftover food. Delhi government has started free eating points in school buildings which are being used as shelter for poor and labourers as well. Close to one thousand night-shelters and community halls are being operated by governments in every big city to make the lockdown a success.

Mass migration of labours may be a unique phenomenon for global media but Indians witness this every year on Hindu festivals like ‘Chhath” and ‘Diwali’ when labours from mega cities migrate to the eastern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa which are home to millions of workers across the country.

Authorities were not worried about handing the crowd or feeding them, but real concern was to stop the spread of coronavirus in the mass gatherings which could lead to community transmission.

This sudden mass movement of labours was not to counter hunger or joblessness but it was triggered by two main factors; first, the wrong perception, that mega-cities are more prone to virus attack compare to their villages and second, the announcement of Prime Minister’s relief package which guaranteed them ration and sizable cash amount for next three months at their native place.

India’s image of having poor healthcare infrastructure is also debateable. Despite having dense population, no major disease or virus originated in India in last few centuries. Ebola, yellow fever, SARS and MERS — which took a high global toll over the past one decade — had negligible impact on India. This country eradicated Polio and Smallpox very successfully through its micro-level public-relation system and vaccination programs.

India tops the world in exporting generic medicines, and currently, the Indian pharmaceutical industry is one of the largest and most developed across continents. Recently, India also became famous for health tourism for its affordable and reliable medical facilities.

So far, by learning from the mistakes of others, India is boosting its overall health infrastructure by initiating measures like designating dedicated hospitals for affected patients in states, ramping up procurement of ventilators and mobilising resources of Railways and armed forces to deal with any eventuality.

Private hospitals too have ramped up their facilities and creating focussed team to handle any surge of patients in future.

There are other experts who see it differently also. India is largely safe, and this relative safety lies in its weather which acts as a defence against the virus, says K K Aggarwal, president, Heart Care Foundation of India. That could be exactly the reason why other viruses had negligible impact on India. All these factors will count in Nigeria as well including higher immunity level and resilience to virus attacks.

Doctors expressed fear that India ran the risk of seeing the viral transmission in stage three of infection if the lockdown and quarantine norms were not diligently complied with.

Sharma writes from New Delhi, India

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