Coronavirus forces thousands of impoverished Indians to leave cities, walking hundreds of miles to get to their villages

When the coronavirus began spreading, and I hadn’t heard much about India, I thought to myself, “My god, when it gets there it will be a debacle!” I’ve been all over India and love the country, but it’s an incubator just waiting for an injection of virus. The cities are terribly crowded and there’s virtually no opportunity (especially in those cities) to “self-segregate”—especially for the poor who are often jammed together in shantytowns. (Even in the country entire families occupy small spaces, often one room.)

And since many live hand to mouth, a shutdown of commerce would lead to starvation. To this add the sub-par medical care, with even that completely unavailable to the impoverished, i.e., most of the populace. Finally, the nature of the country, with a lot of independent people who have only the bare essentials (India is the world’s largest democracy) means that a draconian lockdown à la China is unlikely to work.

Well, Covid-19 has struck India, there was a government lockdown of commerce, and that had a result I didn’t foresee: mass migration of the poor out of the cities in a desperate attempt to reach their home villages. As the article below notes, this is migration almost on the scale of the Partition: when Pakistan was created and the Muslims in India migrated to their new country, while the Hindus in Pakistan went south to India. The only difference is that the 1947 migration was larger, and a lot of people of different religions were slaughtering each other.

It will break your heart to look at the pictures in this Associated Press article (click on the link):

An excerpt (the story is mostly pictures, and that’s pretty much what we need to see to comprehend the disaster in progress):

Over the past week, India’s migrant workers — the mainstay of the country’s labor force — spilled out of big cities that have been shuttered due to the coronavirus and returned to their villages, sparking fears that the virus could spread to the countryside.

It was an exodus unlike anything seen in India since the 1947 Partition, when British colonial rule ended and the subcontinent was split between Hindu-majority India and mostly Muslim Pakistan.

India’s 21-day lockdown has effectively kept 1.3 billion people at home for all but essential trips to places like markets or pharmacies. But the world’s largest lockdown has turned into a humanitarian crisis for India’s improvised workforce.

They mostly live in squalid housing in congested urban ghettos. But with no daily earnings, no savings, and thus no way to buy food, they must head to their home villages to survive.

Train services are suspended, taxis are unaffordable and the hundreds of buses brought to the outskirts of New Delhi to ferry people home lacked enough seats.

That leaves walking. The government told India’s top court on Tuesday that 500,000 to 600,000 migrants have walked to their villages from cities.

As the crisis worsened, authorities scrambled to arrange transport, shelter and food for them.

But it was too late.

Reader John sent me a quote he found on Twitter purportedly from an Indian doctor, though he couldn’t authenticate it. But the sentiments are authentic enough, and let’s remember this when it comes time for us to step up for the poor countries:

Here are some photos from the article, with captions and credits:

In this Saturday, March 28, 2020, file photo, Indian migrant laborers wait for buses provided by the government to transport them to their hometowns, following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo)


In this Friday, March 27, 2020, file photo, migrant daily wage laborers crowd a bus as they travel to their respective hometowns following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

This is a familiar sight to those who use buses to travel under normal circumstances; now it’s even worse. And buses are always crowded: NO social distancing:

In this Saturday, March 28, 2020, photo, an Indian migrant worker tries to make his way through a window of a bus provided by the government, as they leave for their respective villages following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Many of these people are going to get ill, and they don’t even have a bed to lie down on, much less food or medical care.

In this Saturday, March 28, 2020, file photo, an Indian migrant family waits for transportation to their village following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

To me, this photo says it all:

In this Monday, March 30, 2020, file photo, an injured foot of a daily wage laborer is seen as he rests on way to his village following a lockdown amid concern over spread of coronavirus on the outskirts of Prayagraj, India. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Reader Enrico called my attention to two new articles on the likelihood of pandemic disasters in poor countries like India (here and here). The first article gives this horrifying fact:

It was called the Spanish influenza, but given the number of Indians it killed, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 should perhaps have carried a different name. Some 18m are thought to have died, or 6% of the country’s population at the time. A century later, with covid-19 lapping at India’s now far more crowded shores, fears are rising that the world’s second-most-populous country could again bear a disproportionate share of the global agony.

Eighteen million deaths in India! Imagine what could happen now. . . .


  1. Mark R.
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Much needed perspective. Heart wrenching.

  2. eric
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Yes I saw the pictures yesterday. What a horrible crisis. Those crowds, mass-migrating, are practically designed to spread the infection. I can’t imagine what the countries’ infection rate is going to look like in a week or two.

    Good luck to everyone on the subcontinent. Stay well.

    • Posted April 2, 2020 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      It was chilling to see the news footage of industrial soaker hoses being used to spray disinfectant over a crowd of crouching homeless people.

      My heart is shattered over this humanitarian disaster unfolding on an epic scale.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    The world is in for a rough future. And what kind of leadership has India? I hope better than ours.

    • Posted April 1, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Nope. It’s the horrible Hindu-centric BJP government of Narendra Modhi–a government that has no respect for modern science.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted April 1, 2020 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Time to watch and meditate on every episode (or at least a few) of the searing documentary “Reason (Vivek) Reason” by Anand Patwardhan. It consists of 16 separate videos, each about 13-15 minutes long. Downloadable, free.

        There’s supposed to be a complete English voiceover edition but I can’t find it. Though most of it is in Hindi and Marathi, every part of the documentary is spellbinding and makes one deeply sad and furious. An English voiceover version must be made available.

        Part of a description of the documentary:

        “At the same time, it stands apart, like a pillar in the garbage of a country we are currently living in, pointing out again and again that nothing is right in the Indian polity and society, trying to trace the reason why nothing is right and finding none at the end of it except the absence of hope – for the Dalits as a solid whole and Dalits as small entities – manual scavengers, daily labour, construction workers and so on.

        Then he covers the victimization and merciless yet diabolic killing of innocent Muslims, he covers people who have dedicated their lives to establish and reinstate a secular India such as Narayan Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, for students like Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya who instead of researching for their Ph.D. are forced either to draw attention to their cause for justice and equality by committing suicide or fight for their rights granted by the Indian Constitution framed by Babasaheb Ambedkar, their guru, their mentor, their God.”

  4. cicely berglund
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Was reading this am about Burkina Faso. And most likely many other places in Africa have a similar scenario. Hardly bears thinking about.

  5. Posted April 1, 2020 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Awful. I feel ashamed complaining about our relatively minor inconveniences.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 2:00 pm | Permalink


  6. Posted April 1, 2020 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Our daughter had been teaching English at the American Embassy School in New Delhi until just ten days ago, when she caught the last plane out–to Singapore and then SF, after the administration closed the school till April 20. She’s been teaching online. Most of the faculty are still there in lockdown, and the school in unlikely now to reopen the campus now. She fortunate in that the school will pay for her apartment to be packed up and her belongings shipped to the US.

    Beyond the great tragedy of the many thousands of migrant workers who are homeless without their jobs, there is the equally ominous plight of the poor who do have homes. What many of them lack nonetheless is running water, so following an adequ
    ate hygiene regime is impossible for millions, and, even worse, the medical infrastructure is terribly shaky. So far, as of today, there is a total of 1,723 confirmed infections across the country. The lockdown there is the largest in the world, restricting 1.3 billion people.

    • Posted April 1, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      I’ve added an Indian doctor’s quote to that effect, as well as two links to articles about the crisis certain to come. It’s good that your daughter managed to get out.

      • rickflick
        Posted April 1, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        Amen to that!

  7. naveen1941
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    A government that has sent missions to Mars and Moon and manages the largest Medicare system in the world, builds record breaking constructions of hydroelectric projects like Polavaram, encourages record breaking numbers of women going to school, has first rate higher education system in its IIts, manages a weaponry system quite adequately etc. etc.. is indeed disrespectful of modern science. Thank you very much. A critic without a name is indeed self-respecting person.

  8. rickflick
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    So sad.

  9. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    The poor and displaced will suffer terribly all over the world. Most wealthy nations are barely able to cope with their own Covid 19 cases. Unfortunately, we wont see many compassionate doctors flying to camps, Africa or Brazil

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    The dummkopf governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, finally — finally! — issued a statewide shelter-in-place order effective midnight on the morrow. Should’ve been done long ago.

    I still can’t believe the asshole didn’t shut down the beaches and hotels when the state was fulla spring-breakers. But he’s so far up the ass of the bidness interests, he ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. There will be blood — or whatever bodily fluid is associated with acute respiratory illness — on his hands.

    Now it’s time to get down to some serious, nonstop reading round here.

    • sted24
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      Have you noticed what the ‘dummkopf’ government of Sweden is doing? Uniquely in developed Europe, I think, very little. So far.

      Re: India. Aside from the humanitarian tragedy almost certain to unfold in vast numbers, it will be interesting to see how the ‘World’s Largest Democracy’ fares v the ‘Worlds Largest Authoritarian State’.

      My money, I am afraid, tends to be on the latter. If you believe the figures.

      • sugould
        Posted April 2, 2020 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        Care to wager that DJT won’t (eventually) use the massive projected deaths in India to ‘prove’ how lucky we are that *he* is going to limit us to only a million or so…

    • JezGrove
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Maybe DeSantis shares a hero with Boris Johnson:

  11. JezGrove
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve visited Pakistan but not India. It is heart breaking to think how people in such crowded cities will cope without access to proper sanitation – which is the case, regardless of government claims:

  12. Joe
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    What could be worse than these crowded nations? Refugee Camps. Heard about the one on Lesbos just yesterday. 20,000 inmates crowded together, 20 health care workers on the island, the water taps work sporatically. Hopeles situation.

  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I will not begin to list the abject pathetic response of the Trump team so far but the list is long and getting longer everyday. He still refuses to nationalize the supplies effort leaving all states in great need of masks, ventilators and all supplies. Something so easy to have done long ago and still. It’s nearly the same as open murder. 50 states bidding against each other for limited supplies – it is insane. Some supplies are being sent overseas while attempting to order the same supplies from other countries. Many of the ventilators don’t work because the contract to maintain them expired months ago and has never been made since.

  14. Posted April 2, 2020 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Really heartbreaking. It is easy to understand if this is out of a movie, but it is real. How can that be? The news that come out these days are really crazy.

  15. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 5:37 am | Permalink

    What you say about India is also applicable in many other countries. Sub-Saharan Africa will have very little capacity to control the spread of the disease for the very same reasons you mention: people living in very close proximity in shanty towns without even basic hygiene facilities, people living hand to mouth, very low levels of health care provision per head of population. It is a terrifying prospect.

    As referred to in the comments above, the various refugee camps in the Middle East also represent a hyper-vulnerable population of people. I understand the virus is now known to be present in Syria and the displaced people from Idlib are at very great risk. I have no idea of how these people can be helped but I am sure that donations to Medecins sans frontieres and similar organisations working to help these people would not go amiss.

  16. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Although India is a very large country, many areas, even outside the mega-cities are densely populated. A homemade mask is about the only defense many, if not most, have against the virus.
    The quote from the ‘Indian doctor’, whether ‘authentic’ or not, is very true.

    In South Africa we have the same problem on a smaller scale. Many cannot really distance socially, let alone isolate themselves. The government here did something good for a change: we are in lockdown since 6 days planned to last until April 15. The decision was taken when there were only 150 confirmed cases and no death yet. We are at 1500 cases and tree deaths now. I fear that another period of lockdown is on the table.

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