Patna: More than ten days after thousands of migrant workers from across the country arrived at their native villages in Bihar after the lockdown, the state government has finally woken up and begun screening them to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, the government launched a large-scale screening test of close to 1.8 lakh migrant workers, as per official figures. Unofficial figures doing the rounds say more than 2 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar after March 22.
Hundreds of health officials will be part of the screening which will be conducted in two phases, according to instructions issued by Bihar’s chief secretary Deepak Kumar to all district magistrates.
The first phase which began on April 4 is for those who had come to Bihar between March 22 and March 26 on special trains from Mumbai, Delhi, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and other places. The second phase will be for those who came in on March 30 and March 31.
Following the lockdown, thousands of migrant workers reached Bihar, many walking between 200 kms and 500 kms, others cycling, some on motorcycles and rickshaws, and a lot of them without food and water. Most of them reached their native villages without undergoing any medical screening.
Fearing a community spread of the novel coronavirus, the Bihar government declared a blanket ban on the entry of outsiders last Tuesday.
This much-delayed exercise began after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar instructed top officials on Friday to conduct tests on migrant workers on priority and ensure monitoring of isolation centres and those in quarantine in their homes.
Kumar said that at present, 27,000 migrant workers are staying in isolation centres set up in more than 3,200 government-run schools in their respective villages across the state. A large number of migrant workers have been quarantined in their homes.
“Our primary concern is to identify and detect any suspected case among migrant workers and follow it up with a proper test. We will complete the screening exercise in five to six days. It is not possible to conduct tests of all migrant workers because we don't have test kits in the state.The state government has demanded the central government to provide more test kits,” Kumar said.
Kumar said the government will arrange for and fund the treatment of those found suffering from coronavirus after the test.
According to a senior health department official, the government is wary of the coronavirus spreading in rural areas. “There is a fear that they may contribute to community spread if some are infected with COVID-19. So, screening is important to minimise chances of spread,” he said.
He said that only a handful of migrant workers who had reached the state were made to undergo screening and that most of them were neither in temporary isolation wards nor quarantined in their homes. “Most of the temporary isolation centres set up in government schools and panchayat buildings in villages are deserted, as migrant workers prefer to stay in their homes,” he said.
According to reports, hundreds of suspected cases fled from isolation centres and are openly violating home quarantine. In some cases, they have also attacked local officials who tried to identify them.
As of Saturday, 31 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Bihar with one person dead. So far, the state has tested 2629 samples. Sanjay Kumar, principal health secretary said that nearly 6050 people are under observation in the state. At 3105, Siwan has the maximum number of people are under surveillance, followed by Gopalganj with 705 and 269 in East Champaran.
Bihar’s migrant labourers can be found in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Assam, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Pune also have a sizeable number of people from Bihar.
However, he state government has no official records. Various estimates suggest that over one crore migrants from Bihar permanently work outside. Besides them, there are thousands who work as seasonal migrants. While the majority of the migrants from Bihar work in farms, factories, construction and infrastructure sites and do other such unskilled work, many are also skilled professionals.