Bihar’s dual challenge: Tracking coronavirus infections, preparing for influx of returning migrants

The state machinery’s response so far shows it’s geared up well for the battle. But it will need the citizen to be a warrior as well.

ByAnand Vardhan
Bihar’s dual challenge: Tracking coronavirus infections, preparing for influx of returning migrants
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In the first few days of the nationwide lockdown to fight the coronavirus pandemic, Bihar is coming to terms with the fact that its battles are internal as well as external. As the country starts talking about the difficulties faced by migrant workers from the third most populous state during the lockdown, the state government is streamlining its response to it.

On March 27, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s office issued a press release detailing how his government was helping the migrant workforce stranded in other parts of the country as well as within the state. It assured the workers that efforts were being made to arrange for food and shelter for them. It also noted that Rs 100 crore had been released from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to provide assistance to workers from Bihar stuck because of the lockdown.

The same day, workers from Bihar stranded in other parts of India were told to call 9818331252 or 9773711261 for immediate help. The additional chief secretary’s number, 9476191436, was made public as well. Moreover, the government set up a 24x7 helpline at Bihar Bhawan, New Delhi – 011-23792009, 011-23014326, 011-23013884. The helpline is connected to a control room at Bihar Bhawan. According to Vipin Kumar, resident commissioner of Bihar in Delhi, the control room had responded to 537 calls until Friday evening and provided immediate help to around 17,000 stranded workers. Most of the calls were from Punjab, Maharashtra, Kerala, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Haryana. On Monday, the Bihar government appointed nodal officers in different states to address the grievances of its migrant workers.

Many in Bihar believe the governments in states where the migrants worked and lived with their families were slow to respond to the crisis. Following appeals by leaders from Bihar, some state governments claimed to be making arrangements for them. However, these late responses couldn’t stop the exodus; thousands of migrants rushed to the Delhi border last Saturday to travel either to Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

Nitish raised valid concerns about this exodus – the facilitation strategy, as seen from the Delhi Transport Corporation buses, run by the Delhi government, dropping migrant workers off at the UP border. Nitish argued that such an approach went against the objectives of the lockdown. Leaders of his Janata Dal United party and its ally, the BJP, slammed the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi for undermining the purpose of the lockdown.

The exodus, meanwhile, prompted the Bihar government to start setting up relief camps along its border to provide shelter, food and medical help for 14 days to migrants returning home. District magistrates of the border districts were told to take immediate steps for running these relief camps.

The Centre has asked state governments to take necessary measures and extend help in preventing the exodus of migrant workers. According to media reports, Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke with chief ministers about the need for taking effective steps to curb the exodus. In its latest directive to states and union territories, the home ministry has asked them to the State Disaster Relief Fund for making temporary accommodation, food, clothing, and medical care arrangements for homeless people, including migrant workers.

But the urge to go home isn’t driven by the same reason for all migrant workers. It ranges from the obvious inability to meet expenses in the wake of the sudden loss of work and forced eviction by landlords to even casually approaching the lockdown as a long holiday to be spent at their native place to the perception that they would be safer at home than in big cities. While well-meaning concern for the difficulties faced by the migrant workers is understandable, it’s significant to examine the motivations behind the exodus case by case. In the meantime, governments and civil society groups have swung into action to either curb the exodus or facilitate the safe return of the migrants.

Speaking to people in rural Bihar reveals that the return of thousands of migrants has raised concerns about the threats they carry for the health of villagers in the absence of proper isolation and screening. Some villages are even reacting to their return in huge numbers with evident panic; there are reports of villagers objecting to the returning workers living in the village. Taking note of the situation, the state government has ordered the conversion of village schools and panchayat buildings into quarantine centres.

The state hasn’t seen a drastic rise in the number of reported cases of coronavirus infection. According to the latest data provided by the Bihar government, 15 cases have been identified as positive out of 674 samples tested so far; 565 samples have tested negative while a few results are awaited. The only death has been of a Qatar-returned patient at AIIMS, Patna.

According to Sanjay Kumar, principal secretary, health, the latest four positive cases are employees of a hospital in Munger where a Covid-19 patient who had returned from abroad was undergoing treatment. The official said this patient has been identified as having infected 10 other people.

The state government is focusing on tracking down 16, 447 people who returned from abroad after January 15. A sense of urgency is visible in following the Centre’s directive for tracing all such persons physically. The administrations in some districts are using the services of schoolteachers and anganwadi workers for tracking these people. According to a newspaper report, 1,228 people who have returned from coronavirus-affected countries, have enrolled for home quarantine. Gopalganj district tops this list with 183 residents enrolling for isolation at home.

While initial anxieties about testing labs have been addressed to an extent, the lack of protective kits and masks for medical staff has been criticised by them in official communications as well as in social media posts. On March 26, for instance, 83 junior doctors at the Nalanda Medical College and Hospital, Patna, wrote to their superintendent seeking 15-day home quarantine as they blamed the absence of protective equipment for developing some symptoms of the viral disease. In a social media post, a doctor at the Patna Medical College and Hospital also expressed concern about the shortage of protective kits. The government has given an assurance of addressing the issue at the earliest.

Concerns about the possible shortage of testing kits have also been raised. However, the Centre has assured the health ministry in Bihar and the director of the Rajendra Memorial Research Institute of Medical Sciences, Patna, that adequate number of testing kits would be made available.

The state’s vigil over coronavirus had begun early this month with a high alert sounded along the generally porous Indo-Nepal border. Over the next few weeks, the police had a more daunting task awaiting them: striking a balance between strict measures to enforce the lockdown and appealing to people’s good sense by making use of public address systems to urge them to stay indoors. The police are alert to people taking advantage of exemptions to prolong their outdoor stay on the pretext of visiting grocery or medicine shops.

The police have stepped up the tracking of foreign nationals. Early this week, for instance, following a complaint by local residents, 10 Kyrgyzstan nationals were taken in preventive custody from a mosque and sent to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Patna, to undergo tests. They tested negative and were released.

The political class, across party lines, is showing some signs of solidarity in helping the Bihar government fight the pandemic. Legislators have responded well to Nitish’s appeal to earmark Rs 50 lakh from their Chief Minister’s Development Fund for the state’s Corona Fund. The leader of opposition, Tejashwi Yadav, has committed money to the relief fund and he has been active on social media seeking assistance from leaders in various states for the migrant workers from Bihar.

As an early relief initiative, the Bihar government last week announced that all families with ration cards would get a cash assistance of Rs 1,000 each. The government would use the direct benefit transfer route to credit the accounts of all ration card-holders. A slew of other measures, including free ration supplies for a month, have also been announced.

The civil society has also pitched in with its contributions. Religious and charitable trusts such as the Mahavir Mandir Trust, the governing body of Patna’s famous Hanuman Mandir and a chain of charitable hospitals, has contributed Rs 1 crore to CM’s relief fund. Civic bodies such as the Patna Municipal Corporation have set up relief camps and night shelters for those stranded in the capital. These camps offer accommodation and food free of cost.

Covid-19, though, isn’t the only disease the state government is trying to tackle. Bihar is also facing the scourge of the outbreak of bird flu, which recently killed birds in Patna, Nalanda and Nawada districts, and swine flu, which is being seen as the reason for deaths of around 50 pigs in Rohtas and Bhagalpur districts. Taking stock of the situation, the chief minister held a review meeting of the Animal and Fisheries Resources Department on Bird Flu and Swine Fever last week. Meanwhile, two children showing symptoms of acute encephalitis syndrome were admitted to the Sri Krishna Medical College and Hospital, Muzaffarpur, and one of them died late last evening. Last July, the disease had claimed the lives of 164 children in the state. At the review meeting, the chief minister also discussed the AES cases and the action taken to tackle the scourge early on.

As the state responds to an unprecedented crisis, Bihar would hope that, along with political leadership, the state bureaucracy rises to the occasion to fight off the unseen enemy. The response of the state machinery and the pooling of resources so far show that Bihar has geared up well for the fight. However, the political leadership and the bureaucracy will need citizens to be an equally important warrior in this battle.

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