New Delhi: ‘Coming home’ has acquired an edge of anxiety since India went into lockdown with states recording a spike in COVID-19 cases each time there is an influx of people, whether from cluster events or the return of migrants getting back to where they once belonged.
Clambering on to trains, packed into trucks and buses or simply cycling, hitchhiking and walking, lakhs of exhausted migrant workers have begun reaching home, more than 50 days after the lockdown that began on March 25.
As people crisscross the country, eager to return to their homes, the cases have raced past 80,000 with at least 2,649 deaths, according to the Union Health Ministry on Friday. While there is no exact count, this includes a large number of those who have returned to their states.
Parallel to the large movement of people, signalling reverse migration in Maharashtra, for instance, are cases of people going back home from mass gatherings such as the Tablighi congregation in Delhi in the early days of the lockdown or more recently the return of people from a gurdwara in Nanded in Maharashtra.
Many people are put into quarantine centres once they enter their states but the incidence of the highly infectious disease rises inexorably, and unstoppably.
In Odisha, for instance, 71 of the 73 people who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday had returned from other states.
Of the 71, as many as 50 returned from Surat in Gujarat, 20 from West Bengal and one from Karnataka, an official said.
With lakhs of migrants on the move – in what is possibly the largest movement of people in India since Partition – Odisha’s count rose rapidly to 611 on Thursday, from just 162, on May 3.
Ganjam district in south Odisha had no cases till May 2 and now has 137, all except one returned from the textile town of Surat.
It is a good sign that positive cases come from within the quarantine centres and not from the community, said Odisha government’s COVID-19 spokesperson Subroto Bagchi.
The ‘return of the native’ has also led to a spike in Bihar, which has 940 cases.
Migrant workers comprised more than 75% of those testing positive over the last week, state Principal Secretary, Health, Sanjay Kumar, said on Monday at a review meeting chaired by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
The number of cases rose from 528 to 707 between May 4 and 10. Of the 179, 150 were migrant workers, including 41 from Delhi-NCR, 36 from Maharashtra and 35 from Gujarat.
Thousands of people, stranded across various parts of India, are pouring into West Bengal too. These include 2,500 students and their families from Kota and train loads of migrants returning from different places, including Kerala.
Though the state government is not sharing any details, the state has been reporting more than 100 cases a day since May 6.
A senior leader of the ruling TMC said on the condition of anonymity that bringing migrant workers back has the risk of a spurt in the number of cases.
The other source of worry has been people returning from gatherings attended by hundreds, maybe thousands, of people.
In Punjab, for instance, pilgrims who returned from the Nanded Hazoor Sahib gurdwara constitute the bulk of cases with 1,225 of 4,216 testing positive.
As of Thursday, the state had 1,934 cases with 32 fatalities.
The state government had brought the pilgrims stranded in Nanded for more than a month in buses.
Punjab has another challenge with around 20,521 migrant workers returning from other parts of the country, said National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) director S K Singh.
Initially, many coronavirus positive cases in the state were linked to NRIs. A 70-year-old religious preacher who had returned from a trip to Germany and Italy, for instance, was found to be responsible for infecting almost 27 people.
It was a task for the state government to trace around 1,50,000 NRIs and foreign returnees arriving in different parts of the state but it has managed to trace and quarantine most of them, officials said.
Among those infected was a 42-year-old driver from Nanded who ferried five pilgrims to Haryana and then returned, a journey of about 3,000 km, and is puzzled about how he contracted the infection.
“We left from Nanded on April 19, and I returned on April 23… We took stops only where there was no crowd or mostly at empty places. I left those five at Sirsa in Haryana and returned. I can’t figure out from where I got the infection,” the driver told PTI.
Worried about those coming from outside, Haryana has sealed its borders.
More than 120 of its 793 cases are because of those who had attended the Tabligh event in March, said Haryana Health Minister Anil Vij.
Vij has cited the movement between Delhi and the state as the reason for the rise in cases.
Sonipat, Jhajjar, Gurgaon and Faridabad, part of the National Capital Region, have reported a bulk of the cases. About 1,000 of Delhi’s almost 8,000 cases are also attributed to the Tabligh gathering in the city’s Nizamuddin area.
Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa’s home district Shivamogga was in the green zone for long but recently reported that eight of the nine affected had returned from Ahmedabad were contacts of Tablighi Jamaat cases.
Hassan district in the state was also corona-free but five people, including two children, with a travel history to Mumbai tested positive.
Tracking the spread of the disease in Jharkhand, officials said the first case was a 22-year-old Malaysian woman, one of 17 foreign nationals taken into custody on March 29 in Ranchi. She sparked off a chain of infections in the Hindpiri locality with 93 people testing positive.
If Nanded and the Tabligh gathering were two major cluster events, other crowded places have also led to the spread of the disease.
The wholesale market in Koyambedu in Chennai is one such, reflecting in increased numbers in Andhra Pradesh.
Over 160 individuals with contacts to people who returned from Koyambedu were traced in Chittoor district and tests revealed 27 COVID-19 positive cases in two days this week.
And sometimes, just when you feel the battle has been won, come new cases—from outside.
Kasaragod in Kerala, one of the early Covid-19 hotspots in the country, had a lot to rejoice on Sunday when its tally touched zero. Within hours, however, there were four new cases, all who had travelled from Maharashtra.
Ditto with Goa, which was declared a green zone with no active cases since May 1. The situation has now changed with seven COVID-19 cases. While six came from Mumbai, the seventh is a truck driver who recently reached the state from Gujarat.
Beyond the big picture story are the many individual ‘spreaders’.
In the Rajasthan capital Jaipur, for instance, a man who returned from Oman violated guidelines and led to his family, friends and relatives getting infected, officials said. Within days, the cases suddenly increased in Ramganj locality, which became a hotspot.
Himachal Pradesh has about 25 active cases (of a total 66), many who have come from outside and the worry is that the numbers will spiral.
Kangra MP Kishan Kapoor said 40,000 people have returned to Kangra alone from other states and urged people to strictly observe social distancing norms and follow all precautions to check spread of the virus.