Mar 30, 2020 - World

History's largest lockdown leaves Indian workers stranded, afraid

Dave Lawler, author of World

A migrant worker on the move with his child, in Gurugram, India. Photo: Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty

Few moments better capture the world into which we've slipped than the decision of one man to order 1.4 billion into lockdown.

Why it matters: India’s three-week lockdown is the largest ever attempted, and it sparked South Asia's greatest migration since partition in 1947. While the economic effects could be devastating, the public health crisis it's intended to fend off could be more destructive still.

Driving the news: Prime Minister Narendra Modi today apologized to poor Indians for the hardships they'd suffered. But he defended the measures he announced last Tuesday, with virtually no warning, as brutal but necessary.

"If we don’t manage these 21 days, the country will be set back by 21 years.”
Narendra Modi, on March 24

The big picture: Nearly half a billion Indians work informally, scraping by on construction sites, in restaurants and other such jobs. Many travel hundreds of miles to find work.

  • Lacking savings, suddenly jobless and with transport halted, untold thousands began desperate journeys toward their home villages on foot or in packed buses.
  • At least 22 people have reportedly already died on such journeys.

On the ground: “Among those stuck were Sanjay Kumar and his father, Ashok, both daily wage laborers,” Joanna Slater and Niha Masih write in the Washington Post:

  • “They had been trying for two days to travel from Delhi to their home 420 miles away.”
  • "His father had a fever, Sanjay Kumar said, and the two men were running out of money. The police, charged with implementing the lockdown measures, admonished them to get off the streets.”

Zoom out: Neighboring Nepal was also suddenly ordered into lockdown last week despite having just five confirmed cases, former Axios fellow and BBC Nepali journalist Phanindra Dahal tells me from Kathmandu:

  • Migrant workers returning from India have been stranded at the border. Even as hundreds have been rescued, more continue to arrive.
  • There have been shortages of cooking fuel and other staple supplies due to hoarding. Nepal's position is particularly precarious because it imports everything from food to fuel from India.
  • Tourism is shut down, including at Mt. Everest, another big blow to the economy.
  • As life moves online, rural areas with limited access are left behind. And because testing has been so limited (fewer than 1,000 tests have been conducted, nearly all of them in the capital) and health infrastructure is poor, a sharp rise in cases could be devastating.

The same is true in India, where the official totals of 1,251 cases and 32 deaths are almost meaningless given the lack of testing.

  • As in other developing countries, living conditions for many Indians make social distancing and regular handwashing near impossible.
  • India’s health care capacity is notoriously insufficient: “1 doctor per 11,600 people, 1 isolation bed per 84,000 people and a total of 40,000 ventilators for 1.37 billion people,” per Monkey Cage.

The bottom line: Before long, Modi’s dramatic step may again seem unthinkable. For now, there's concern it could be too little too late.

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