Reportage Rural

Infection Rates in Migrant Workers

Rural Bihar
Image source: Gajendra Yadav/Indian Express

Migrant labourers in India have shown an infection rate of 20 percent. The lack of social distancing, along with poor immunity and malnourishment are the main contributors. States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have seen a 26 percent positivity rate among its migrant guest workers. The rate is as low as 3 to 4 percent in the southern states.

SARS CoV-2 is especially prone to attacking tightly knit groups, which suggests that reducing gatherings is the key. Christophe Fraser of the University of Oxford (who has studied superspreading in Ebola and HIV) says that it spreads mostly through droplets. It can also spread through finer aerosols, which can stay suspended in the air and can affect many through one positive patient.

How does it spread

The elderly population, especially those with comorbidities such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are more prone to contracting the coronavirus. Their already weakened immune system, in the process of fighting off the virus, can affect the people adversely. Malnourishment can lead to poor immunity amongst the migrant workers, which makes them more prone to COVID-19. 

The accommodation that the migrant workers can afford is limited as a result of their meagre salaries. The lockdown does not allow the workers to sit outside, therefore there is no opportunity to practice social distancing. People cluster up in cramped places where they live, eat and sleep in the same vicinity. In such conditions, social distancing is next to none.

“Most workers are asymptomatic carriers which is the main cause of infection. They have walked long distance without proper food and water. Shelter was only close to the highways or railway tracks. Many of them are middle-aged and may not be aware of having a medical condition such as hypertension and diabetes. These factors are now coming to the fore once they contract the infection. Hence the rate of positivity is high in them,” says Dr Mustufa Afzal, a senior infectious disease specialist.

Dr KK Aggarwal, former president of the Indian Medical Association also said that migrant workers are the most vulnerable, and should be duly protected.

A second wave

Virus flare-ups amongst the migrant workers in Southeast Asian countries are causing a second wave of the disease. The dormitory quarters that they have to be based in contributes to a quicker spread of the disease. Along with the lack of proper sanitation and nutrition, they are at high risk of being affected by the COVID-19.

88 percent of the total number of positive coronavirus cases have been linked to migrant workers. These groups also have the tendency to be overlooked by government policies when it comes to strategies for virus prevention.

Failing labour laws

Recently, the UP government suspended 35 out of the 38 labour laws, which included ruling out minimum wages. This could allow employers to exploit workers by paying them less than the minimum wage. Other laws suspended include the Factories Act (that ensures the safety of workers) as well as the Equal Remuneration Act (which ensured equal wages to both men and women). The suspension of these laws will lead to great levels of exploitation of the labourers without any legal backing. It is an ordinance, currently awaiting approval of the central government. The negation of labour laws in the name of economic productivity during a pandemic could spell more trouble for workers. 

The combination of the facilities in health and housing that migrants can avail would only get worse, as the government’s policies overlooking these sections of the society are lukewarm at best. Free ration to the migrant labourers has been announced through the second part of the COVID-19 package, along with the introduction of “Shramik trains” and MGNREGS work opportunities in rural areas.