Police in India battle jobless workers defying coronavirus lockdown

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Amid a growing humanitarian crisis in India, police in one part of the country used tear gas to disperse a large crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown to contain the coronavirus, according to a report.

Last week’s lockdown order has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry across the country, Reuters reported Monday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered the country’s 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic.

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But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant laborers fleeing Delhi and Mumbaieeking and heading to their homes hundreds of miles away in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.

The situation grew violent Sunday in the western city of Surat, as police battled with about 500 migrants wanting to go home to other parts of India because they had no jobs left.

Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on March 28. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis) 

Migrant workers crowd up outside a bus station as they wait to board buses to return to their villages during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on March 28. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis) 

“The police tried to convince them that it is not possible since buses or trains are not available...However, the workers refused to budge, and started pelting stones at police,” Surat deputy commissioner of police Vidhi Chaudhari said, according to Reuters.

Police responded with tear gas.

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Indian health officials have confirmed more than 1,000 cases of the coronavirus, including 29 deaths.

Experts told The Associated Press that local spreading is inevitable in a country where tens of millions of people live in dense urban areas with irregular access to clean water and that the exodus of the migrants will burden the already strained health system.

“India’s big-city hospitals are well equipped to deal with the surge in virus cases,” said public health expert T. Sundararaman. “But the same can’t be said about district hospitals in rural areas, barring some exceptions in states that fare well when it comes to health care.”

India has conducted little testing for the virus.

A soldier on guard stands next to migrant workers as they wait for buses along a highway with their families to return to their villages. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis)

A soldier on guard stands next to migrant workers as they wait for buses along a highway with their families to return to their villages. (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis)

Almost 100,000 people had gathered at bus terminals and other border points in Delhi, where they were stopped from proceeding any further, Sky News reported.

In a nationwide radio address Monday, Modi said he understood why the nation’s poorest communities would be questioning a government decision that stood to put them "into so much trouble,” according to the news outlet.

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But he said the lockdown would help "give India victory over corona.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.