Such images were last seen in India seven decades ago, when the country’s partition and the emergence of Pakistan forced millions of displaced people to stagger across the borders to their new homelands. Unable to earn money to feed themselves or pay rent in congested urban ghettos, India’s vast legion of workers packed up and set off for home, often to villages in faraway states. A migrant worker and his family walk along a road as they return to their village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, March 30, 2020. Paradoxically, Modi’s government had responded positively and rapidly to the desire of Indian expatriates and migrant workers abroad to come home; thousands flew back on evacuation flights before the lockdown. Thousands of migrant workers in India, left jobless by the shutdown, are walking long distances back to their home villages after all transport was stopped except for essential services AFP/Prakash SINGH Compounding the difficulties, there was also confusion about who was permitted on the streets and for what, with shoppers seeking essential supplies and even medical personnel stopped, and in some cases brutally beaten by overzealous policemen wielding lathis (long batons). The southern state of Kerala, where the first coronavirus cases in India appeared (medical students returning from China), has been hailed as a model for its handling of the crisis. It started testing and tracing early, imposed effective quarantine measures, backed them up with welfare support, and prevented an exodus of migrant workers by feeding them in the state. Despite hosting large numbers of travellers (Kerala is the source of India’s largest overseas migrant population, mainly in the Gulf), the state has avoided an uncontrolled outbreak. How could India have bungled its COVID-19 response so badly, despite having a powerful central government, led by a ruling party with an absolute parliamentary majority and the country’s most popular politician?
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