How India’s Coronavirus Lockdown Failed Its Migrant Workers

The abrupt shutdown left India's 120 million migrant laborers in the lurch — states, civilians, and companies had to scramble to their defense.

GettyImages-1208499552 Coronavirus Lockdown
Indian migrant workers and labourers along with their families stuck in the national capital, with and without protective masks crowd to board buses to return to their native villages (March 29, 2020) (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Krithika Varagur


April 7, 2020


12 min

The scale of India is such that certain descriptors can almost end the conversation. “The world’s largest democracy,” for instance: it laps the second-largest democracy by more than one billion people. Today, India is also home to “the world’s largest lockdown,” announced with only four hours of notice on March 25, to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

The most indelible images of the impact of coronavirus in India have not been of the sick but of those in transit, the millions of migrant workers who crammed into bus depots and train stations, hitchhiked, and even walked for days to get home for the indefinite future. What was invisible became visible: India’s economy relies heavily on its more than 120 million domestic migrant workers, who are about one-fifth of the nation’s entire workforce. Stopping in-person business was never going to be a matter of people switching to virtual meetings. The government was aware of this, but for a lockdown to work in such a large country, it had to be decisive. 

So far, Johns Hopkins documents only 5,311 confirmed cases and 150 deaths in India. Some say these low numbers — similar to those of much smaller countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland — reflect insufficient testing. Since its first confirmed case on January 30, India has conducted fewer than 100,000 tests

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