As Kerala crossed the 1-lakh milestone in Covid-19 cases Friday with 90 per cent of infections being reported daily through local contacts, the impact of the pandemic is being felt on one of the state’s most vulnerable sections: its inter-state workforce.
Earlier this month, health workers detected over 100 cases among migrants working for a private firm at Payipra in Ernakulam district in one of the strongest hints of the virus seeping into worker strongholds.
Apart from Ernakulam, one of the biggest migrant hubs in the state, infections among workers were reported in Feroke (Kozhikode), Irinjalakuda (Thrissur) and Athirampuzha (Kottayam). On record, health officials claimed the spread of infection is not large among workers compared to the local population, but the spread of the virus amongst the community with greater intensity in recent weeks does not bode well for the labourers.
Kerala has an estimated 2.5 to 3 million-strong migrant workforce across a wide spectrum of sectors including construction, agriculture and fishing. Over the last three decades, they have managed to plug the holes in the state’s labour force, becoming indispensable to the local economy. In the backdrop of the pandemic, a large section of the footloose worker segment, especially working in construction and hospitality sectors, left the state aboard buses and Shramik trains as jobs dried up. But those attached to plantations and private firms stayed back as their employers provided them with food kits and other supplies until work resumed.
Kerala has mandated two weeks of strict quarantine for those returning to the state, with contractors and employers handed the responsibility of quarantining and testing them. The workers have to register themselves on the Covid-19 jagratha portal of the government and appear for rapid antigen tests, seven days into their quarantine. The workers can join for duty only after getting a nod from the local health authorities.
“Whoever wants to employ them must find quarantine spaces for them before they bring them. There’s no compromise on that aspect,” said Dr Reena KJ, district medical officer, Thrissur.
Benoy Peter, executive director at the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), said there were two ways in which workers are at risk of getting infected.
“Now that cases are spreading into the community, anyone walking into a factory can be potentially carrying the infection. If those chances were negligible earlier, they are substantial now. The moment one of the workers gets the infection, it spreads like wildfire because there is limited scope for social distancing among them. That’s one way. The second is when these employers bring in workers from other states who may not follow the quarantine measures strictly. They then transmit it to the others,” said Peter.
The CMID has been working in tandem with the health department to broadcast multi-lingual messages on Covid-19 symptoms, treatment and protocol to bridge the gap in communication for migrant labourers.
In districts like Ernakulam, authorities have set up a system called the Athithi Domiciliary Care Facility (ADCF) for treatment of workers who test positive, but asymptomatic.
“Instead of taking them to a first-line treatment centre (FLTC), we isolate them on-site itself, arrange separate toilet facilities and shift their primary contacts. This way, the company can continue its operations. It is very crucial in these economic conditions that you don’t shut off a company. Simultaneously, we provide video consultation and check for symptoms in others. If they become symptomatic in five days, they are shifted to a FLTC or hospital,” said Akhil Manuel, nodal officer of the Atithi Devo Bhava, a project of the National Health Mission (NHM).
Dr Jacob Varghese, district medical officer in Kottayam, said testing among workers in firms in industrial areas is throwing up cases even though the numbers are not sizable.
“These are mostly among those who have been here since the pandemic began. We are not finding a lot of cases among those who are returning. This means the transmission is internal,” he said.
Vinod Kumar, district labour officer (enforcement) in Kottayam, said passes are being issued to bring labourers from other states only if employers and contractors can show definitive proof of facilities for their quarantine. If they don’t have ample space in the workplace, private buildings can be leased out. Health workers have to be notified about such quarantine spaces before workers are transported.
“According to our records, there were 34,000 migrant workers in Kottayam before the pandemic, out of which only about 6,000 remain now. In areas like Payippad, which is a big migrant hub, only about 100 workers remain. When they left en masse, it dealt a serious blow to local enterprises and businesses,” said Kumar.
The current absence of long-distance trains from the eastern and northeastern states to Kerala has resulted in workers postponing their journeys until services resume. At the same time, those on the brink of poverty are forced to borrow and spend big on buses and flights to return to Kerala.
“A person from Bengal called me the other day to say that he is travelling by flight to Kerala for the first time in his life. I told him the situation is bad here and it would be better if he rescheduled. But he said he has debts to pay off and it’s not feasible to stay there anymore. ‘He said it’s better to die of Covid than by starvation,” said Peter.
(Deborah Thambi, an intern with indianexpress.com, contributed reporting.)
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