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Exclusives - 22 March, 2020

Migrants flee cities back to their villages

Thousands of migrants whose livelihoods have collapsed due to coronavirus measures taken by the respective governments headed back to their villages on Saturday, raising fears... #Migrantsfeecitiesbacktotheirvillages

Samuel Mathai

Mumbai: Thousands of migrants whose livelihoods have collapsed due to coronavirus measures taken by the respective governments headed back to their villages on Saturday, raising fears that the exodus could carry the virus to the countryside.

The number of positive cases in the country has risen to 315, including 23 recovered and four deaths, the ICMR said on Saturday. Taking lead in the number of cases is Maharashtra totalling to 64, followed by Kerala where 12 new cases were confirmed positive taking the number up to 52. New COVID-19 cases were witnessed in Madhya Pradesh, Puducherry and Chhattisgarh.

Maharashtra state authorities ordered on Friday the closure of all shops and offices, apart from those providing essential services, until March 31. For those who drive rickshaws or run food stalls, the economic shock of such control measures has been huge, pushing them to leave for family homes where they typically do not pay rent and food is cheaper.

“Work has stopped. I’ll go back and work on the farm,” said Rakesh Kumar Gupta, 40, who sells mosquito nets and was heading back to his family house in Uttar Pradesh.

On Saturday, hundreds of people, many young men wearing masks and lugging backpacks, jostled in long queues to board trains at Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminus station. The railways laid on 17 special train services starting on Friday to ferry people out of the Mumbai area to eastern and northern India, an official spokesman said.

Health specialists say large-scale population shifts to rural areas could hasten the spread of coronavirus in India, a country of 1.3 billion people with weak public health care - especially in the countryside.

India has about 120 million migrant labourers, according to labour rights group Aajiveeka. “This really is the beginning of community spread, assuming there haven’t been forerunners,” said Dr Rajib Dasgupta, a professor of community health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Highlighting the risk, the Railway Ministry on Saturday tweeted that a dozen people who had travelled by train in the last few days had tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. “Passengers are advised to avoid non-essential travel for the safety of fellow citizens,” the ministry added.

The virus is underlining the difficult trade-offs countries must make when trying to contain the pandemic, with many fearing that India’s poorest people will be severely hit. “Some people will die of the virus. The rest of us will die of hunger,” said taxi driver Sanjay Sharma on an empty Mumbai street, adding he would travel to the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where his family owns a small apple orchard.

PM appeals citizens to not rush to their villages

Ahead of the ‘Janata curfew’ on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi Saturday appealed people to not rush to their hometowns and villages in fear of the coronavirus, urging them to not travel in large numbers. “I pray to all, whichever city you are in, please stay put for a few days. If we do this, we will be able to combat the spread of the virus,” PM Modi said and urged people to not step out their houses.

Addressing the citizens, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal Saturday assured the national capital is not under lockdown, however, steps will be taken towards it if the need arises. “We are not doing a lockdown currently but we might in future, if necessary for your betterment and safety,” he said.

Meanwhile, Imposing a “near-lockdown” from Sunday on five districts and eight towns of Odisha, CM Naveen Patnaik Saturday said airport, railways, bus-stand and essential services will remain exempted.

Globally, Italy reported a dramatic surge in coronavirus deaths at 627 Friday, taking the total number of casualties to 11,868 while the number of infected people topped 2,84,000. Wuhan in China reported no new cases even on Friday, sparking a glimmer of hope. (With inputs from news agencies)

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