As tens of thousands of people move across States, many of them migrant workers and their families travelling as unorganised groups, the Centre finds itself facing a fresh front in the campaign to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was possible to shut down optional public activity and travel early on during the lockdown, those who were stranded within the country and abroad have started returning home. Only some are travelling by trains and aircraft, and the system of quarantine in the States is not uniform. The Centre, as the lockdown regulator, now has the important task of creating a consensus with the States on the quarantine modalities. Confusion surrounding quarantine for passengers who took the first relief trains from New Delhi to various cities, leading to some of them returning to the national capital, underscores the need for agreement. The response so far has been flat-footed in several States. Train passengers arriving in Bengaluru protested that they received no advance notice of institutional quarantine, although they were given an option to stay in hotels for 14 days incurring considerable expenditure. Labourers compulsorily quarantined in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar escaped from the facilities after complaining of bad conditions. In Kerala, the Centre insists on a 14-day institutional quarantine for those arriving by air, rejecting the State’s proposal for seven days in a public facility and another seven at home; train passengers were given a home quarantine option. Such a lack of certitude, even as the extended lockdown is set to expire, reflects failure at building consensus.
With further easing of the lockdown, if not full withdrawal, many more will want to move within and between States, by rail and road, besides those returning from abroad. All States have to prepare for this by agreeing on the period of quarantine, and provide, as a baseline, decent and free official accommodation to anyone who wants it. There could be options, including hotels and private accommodation, at non-exploitative tariffs. Such a stratified approach is inevitable, considering that many travellers from areas with high transmission have been testing positive. For thousands of workers moving in groups by road across States, there is both the risk of infection and transmission. This is a daunting scenario as India has crossed 85,000 cases of COVID-19 and slowing the spread depends vitally on joint action. It must be pointed out that the Health Ministry, in its updated advice issued on May 10, approved home isolation for even patients with the virus, if they are deemed to be very mild to pre-symptomatic cases. This indicates a recognition of both the growing case load, the rising pressure on public facilities and the limited scope for paid quarantine. Yet, institutional capacity will have to be ramped up in the coming weeks as part of a cohesive policy.