Pappu Kumar, 22, sits on the edge of his bed in a classroom at the Madhopur Middle School in Hetanpur panchayat, thumbing his phone. Days before the March 24 lockdown, Kumar, a labourer at a flour mill in Chandigarh, had come home to Madhopur village, 15 km from Patna, only to be asked to stay in the school-turned-quarantine centre for 14 days. About a dozen other beds in his room and the adjacent one are empty.
Of about 1.8 lakh migrant workers who returned to the state before or during the lockdown, about 27,300 who came after March 17 were sent to 3,115 schools and panchayat bhawans that were converted into quarantine centres.
According to the COVID-19 protocol drawn up by the state health department, samples of those under quarantine and displaying symptoms are to be tested. About 55,000 of the 27,300 migrants had returned from the COVID-19 “hotspot” states of Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Delhi, and these people were to be continuously monitored and screened for symptoms. The other migrants have been told to stay in “home quarantine”.
But that’s on paper. The Indian Express visited three of five quarantine centres in the Danapur riverine area — which has six panchayats and a combined population of 80,000, with almost at least one person from each household working outside the state – and found most of the migrants on the 14-day quarantine list missing.
Middle School, Madhopur, Hetenpur panchayat
Present: 1/20 on quarantine list
Around 11.30 am, it’s all quiet at the Madhopur school. Two rooms here have been set aside to accommodate the 20 migrants from the village who are under quarantine.
Wearing a mask, teacher Arvind Kumar, who has been tasked to look after the migrants, says, “Twenty people are supposed to be here. the others are out working in the fields.
Three hours later, this correspondent drops by at the school again. This time, all the 20 beds are occupied.
A villager standing at the school gate says, “After the teacher called the mukhiya, all those who had left were asked to come back.”
High School, Havaspur, Patlapur panchayat
Present: 18/60 on quarantine list
It is lunch time at the Havaspur school-turned-quarantine centre. On the menu today is rice, dal, potato, vegetables and papad.
Ravishankar Kumar, a teacher on duty, says some of the 60 people under quarantine here have already eaten; others, who are out working in the fields, will join soon. None of the migrants at the centre is wearing a mask. Kumar says he and his fellow teacher were given gloves and sanitisers.
Four of the 12 classrooms that have been set aside for quarantine facilities are empty and there’s no sign of luggage by any of the beds. The centre has 10 beds, besides mattresses laid on carpet for the others.
Most of the 60 migrants here had returned to the village in a truck, all the way from Kolkata, where they worked mostly as daily wagers or drivers or ran small provision shops.
Lying on their beds after lunch, Dilip Rai and Raju Rai say they owned provision shops in Kolkata and that they will return as soon as the lockdown ends. “We follow the rules. We don’t step out of this school,” claims Dilip.
Vijay Rai, who worked as a driver in Kolkata earning Rs 8,000 a month, says, “Jaana hi padega (we will have to go back to Kolkata).” What he is waiting for is a green signal from the doctor. “They told us we can go back once doctor saab comes and screens us. Par koi nahi aaya ab tak (But no doctor has come yet),” he adds.
The marketplace outside the school is bustling, with grocery shops and food carts selling aloo tikki and litti doing brisk business. No sign here of the lockdown that’s in effect across the country.
Jitendra Kumar, 22, is hanging out here. Isn’t he supposed to be home? “Corona? Hum to corona ko chaba jayenge. Hum log mehnat karne wale aadmi hai, shaharwalon ki tarah najuk nahin. Humlogon ka corona kuch nahi bigaad sakri hai (We will chew this coronavirus alive. We are hard-working, not delicate like townspeople. Corona can do nothing to us).”
Other villagers say there’s hardly any restriction.
“No one follows any quarantine at the school. They go there for breakfast, lunch and dinner and are home or out in the fields the rest of the time. But most of them spend the nights at the centre. What if there is a sudden inspection? This is a joke,” says a villager and the others nod.
Panchayat Bhavan, Gangahara panchayat
Present: 0/40 on quarantine list
It’s 2 pm and there’s no one at the gates of the panchayat building. No one in a room on the ground floor either, just four beds spread out on the ground. Soon, Rakesh Kumar Singh, an executive assistant at the panchayat office, emerges. “The mukhiya is in charge of the quarantine centre. My job is to give periodic reports to the Block Development Office on panchayat works,” he says.
Singh, however, has a list with names of 40 people who are supposed to be in quarantine at the centre, most of them who had returned from Kerala on March 26.
One room, with four beds, has been set aside at the panchayat bhawan for the 40 people on the quarantine list. The other rooms are all of panchayat officials. None of them, not even Singh, wears masks.
Outside the building, in Gangahara, villagers admit no one stays in the centre. “Kya lockdown? Kya corona?”, says a villager, before offering a conspiracy theory. “All of us think this coronavirus is some kind of government plan to siphon off funds. After all, how can someone who has walked miles to reach here have corona?”
When told about the situation in these quarantine centres, Bihar Principal Secretary, Disaster Management, Pratyaya Amrit, told The Indian Express, “We have taken serious note of this and have asked the Patna District Magistrate to take action. Our action will set an example for violators of quarantine in other districts. We are also ensuring doctor visits to all these centres.”
Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?
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