Coronavirus | In Kerala, migrants at crossroads over COVID-19 fears

Kochi/ Kerala, 16/03/2020: Workers from other States wait to return home at Ernakulam Junction railway station, following the Covid 19 situation and fall in demand for manual jobs. Photo:H. Vibhu/The Hindu.   | Photo Credit: H_Vibhu

Supriya Debnath is busy these days posting messages in multiple WhatsApp groups.

Only, they are not pointless forwards or memes but informative multimedia and multilingual messages aimed at creating awareness about COVID-19 among the migrant worker community.

Ms. Debnath, a 24-year-old from Kendrapara district in Odisha and proficient in multiple languages, including Malayalam, is one of the 11 migrant link workers trained by the National Health Mission (NHM) to disseminate COVID-19-related information among the migrant community in the State.

“Initially, they didn’t realise the seriousness of the disease and continued to get on with their lives as usual. So I made field visits to educate them with the dos and don’ts with the help of videos. Now, they are aware of the issue and keep asking me through WhatsApp messages about the gravity of the situation every day,” says Ms. Debnath, an education volunteer with the Roshni project for the academic betterment of migrant children.

Information dissemination

Having already arranged for information dissemination on the epidemic through Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Odia, and Assamese, the Athithi Devo Bhava campaign, aimed at the well being of migrants, is now busy preparing the second set of messages for propagation among the migrant community in the event of a surge in the spread of the disease.


“These messages will focus on more stringent precautionary measures to be taken in the event of a spread. Kerala being one of the first States to report the disease, there is an apprehension among the migrant worker community and their first impulse is to return home. There is no point stopping them either,” says Akhil Manuel, district nodal officer, Athithi Devo Bhava campaign.

Mathews Nambelil, district programme manager, National Health Mission, says measures are being taken to instil confidence among migrant workers who opt to stay back in the State.

“We want to assure them that there is nothing to be scared about and all health facilities accessible to local residents will be open to them as well. The message we want to convey to them is that they will be taken care of,” he says.

Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, says there is likelihood of a reverse exodus of migrant workers in the days to come as witnessed after demonetisation that led to massive job loss in the informal sector four years ago.

“Likewise, the epidemic has begun to take its toll on livelihoods in the informal sector with hotels and restaurants getting closed. Staying back in such circumstances bearing the expenses towards rent and food is not a viable option for many. We have alerted the district administration of Murshidabad district in West Bengal about the large-scale return of migrant workers from Kerala. The potential mass cancellations of trains in the days to come may also trigger panic among those eager to return,” he says.

Mr. Peter says footloose migrant workers, especially the Tamil community with higher average age compared to the rest, are potential carriers of the disease considering that they gather in large numbers in public spaces and move around in the public transport.


The impression that migrant workers are going back in large numbers was reaffirmed by the heavy rush in trains to Guwahati in Assam last week, which Railway Protection Force (RPF) sources at Aluva railway station, a major boarding and alighting point of migrant workers in the State, attributed to job losses and scare over the epidemic.

“During our interaction with migrant workers passing through our station, they told us that they can’t afford to stay back in the face of increasing job loss,” says T.S. Gopakumar, Assistant Security Commissioner, RPF, Ernakulam.

Spectre of job loss

Mujeeb Rahman, president of All Kerala Plywood and Block Board Manufacturers Association, says the epidemic is beginning to take its toll on the business in the wake of lockdowns in Karnataka and Maharashtra and warned of job loss among migrants if the slide continues.

“Migrant workers from Assam, who make up the largest informal workforce in the plywood industry, have not yet started leaving in large numbers. We have restricted them to their lodgings at the work sites while arranging for the delivery of essential goods. Besides, public announcements are being made in their language about the precautions to be taken to fight the disease,” he said.

Notwithstanding the challenging times, not all migrants are thinking of returning home just yet.

There are the likes of Rasid Ahmad, a 23-year-old from Assam employed at a vegetable vending shop at Vellanchira, near Perumbavur. “If you were to get infected you would whether or not you head home. So there is no point going back as long as you have the job. If you lose the job then, of course, there is no point in hanging around here, he says.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:50:57 PM |

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