Quovadis COVID refugees?

Police

Whither art thou going? This is the question that will now be asked of the flood of COVID refugees fleeing the cruel and unfeeling cities to the “safety” of their rural homes. District authorities and border controls will now turn them back to the hell holes they tried to escape from. To what end?

Return to an uncertain life

Stemming cross border human traffic makes sense only if adequate arrangements exist for keeping workers safe – ergo providing them with gloves, face masks, soap and water supply to maintain hygiene. With it goes distancing and no touching. Question is who is there to do all this?

Have emergency government staff themselves been equipped to protect themselves in the field? Second, do they know that effective protection and distancing is key to not getting infected and this includes those who will be preparing the food to feed these mammoth throngs.

The slow pace of creating mass urban quarantine facilities shows the government itself is not convinced about the possibility of large scale infections

Why are we waiting? Why can’t stadia be requisitioned for this purpose. At least they provide some containment and cohesion for monitoring purposes? Why not requisition clubs? They have leafy green lawns and lots of space? The sight of migrants starving near Nigambodh shamshan ghat, the most open and least desirable spots for habitations says it all.

So, let’s get this straight.

The new orders to lock the borders are harsh and not the best containment strategy. Only a very small fraction of the thousands fleeing cities are potentially infected – possibly less than 10 per cent. But you must quarantine them all for three weeks to ensure lower transmission.

Where should these quarantine pools be provided?

The issue is where should they be quarantined? Best to do that at the destination point and not the place they have already made up their mind to flee.

Consider what we did for the “A class” Indian citizen. We brought them home from China, Italy and Iran -around 2000 of them by special flights. This is what Yogi ji has done. He is taking them home to where they belong by bus.

But we do not know what he intends to do with them once they reach. What the UP Government should do is that even as the migrants enter Uttar Pradesh they should declare where they are headed. The data should be collated in real time and advance arrangements made at the point of arrival for equipped containment camps – requisitioned schools or other built up spaces – where they will remain secluded for three weeks before being stamped as clear for further travel.

Demarcated COVID shelters along the way with protective gear for workers

These 100 buses carrying 80,000 people should be labeled as hazardous, the drivers and cleaners provided protective gear and required to stop along the way only at designated fully protected rest stops – private dhabas contracted in by the government for the purpose- with their staff also in protective gear.

COVID bus

Taking these precautions will make Uttar Pradesh more like Veneto than Lombardy – the former quarantined potential infection early – the latter did it late in the day and has registered more cases.

Central financing, decentralized management and community participation.

The mantra is central financing, decentralized management and community participation. The control mechanism is creating congenial places for quarantine – Delhi did this but only for the international arrivals not for ordinary citizens.

The objective is to limit the “lock down” to those who are likely to be latent and actual carriers of infection. For new arrivals this means ALL new arrivals in any location and not just those with a fever or other visible discomfort. The struggle for more ventilators, more doctors and nurses and decentralized stockpiles of medicine should of course continue.

Wage premiums and protective gear can keep the supply chains working safely

But not enough thought is being given to keep the supply chains working. To do so, the availability of workers is now at a premium and emergency wages should be introduced to incentivize locals to work instead of migrants.

workers

Governments can help by offering a wage premium to anyone coming forward for temporary work during the next two months paid directly into the workers bank account. Fast track executive magisterial courts should deal summarily with employers who use the subsidy to cut their own wage payments. An emergency wage premium of 25 percent plus protective gear provided by government for free would be suitable.

Astronauts work in space and walk on the Moon in protective gear. Workers in the times of COVID are similarly heroes. They deserve the best – like astronauts. Management of the flow of labor per their wish is the key – not damming the flow in a top down manner.

Central government not equipped to manage crisis – States are. Empower them.

Central governments have a misplaced notion of their relative higher ability at managing crisis situations versus states. The facts are otherwise.

If Yogi ji’s administration can manage the Kumbh Mela meticulously, there is no reason why they will not be able to safely and sufficiently manage the flow of migrants, expelled from Delhi by a callous administration.

Also available at TOI Blogs March 30, 2020 https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/opinion-india/quovadis-covid-refugees/

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