The second wave of the Covid pandemic has so far been largely limited to densely populated urban areas, with the exception of ‘super spreader’ concentrations of large crowds in events like the Kumbh Mela, cricket matches and political rallies. The sheer explosion in cases and the rapidity with which the second wave has spread has meant that the healthcare infrastructure even in India’s most developed and well-equipped metros like Mumbai and Delhi has virtually collapsed.
However, as cities imposed selective lockdowns and movement restrictions in a bid to contain the surge, memories of last year’s disastrous and unplanned lockdown have once again triggered an exodus of migrant labour from the cities. While this time around, the exodus is not anything like what was witnessed last year, railway and inter-state bus stations are deluged with migrant workers seeking to return to the only assured shelter they know – their own homes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation, went so far as to appeal to the workers to continue to stay, and called upon state administrations to ‘win the trust’ of migrant workers that they would be adequately taken care of.
However, that is a tall ask. Meanwhile, the reverse exodus has raised the worrying spectre of the spread of mutated virus spreading like wildfire through our villages. With the vaccination programme having barely reached the rural areas and with healthcare infrastructure highly inadequate, the nation is looking at the spectre of a crisis of a far worse magnitude than what it is already facing in the cities.
States which have a high share of migrant workers outside, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha, also have among the poorest rural healthcare set-ups, with infrastructure not even at 50 per cent of the prescribed norms. With private healthcare also more or less absent, this is another area where both the Centre and state governments have dropped the ball.