Fact Check: Did Political Parties Disobey WHO by Helping Migrant Workers During Lockdown?

On Monday, PM Modi claimed that India's COVID-19 lockdown was in line with the WHO’s guidance and parties such as the Congress and AAP should not have helped workers go back to their native places.

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New Delhi: On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to say that India’s COVID-19 lockdown was in line with the WHO’s guidance. He was replying to the ‘Motion of Thanks’ on the President’s address in Parliament.

Modi said that some political parties helped migrant workers move when India’s lockdown was in force. He added that this happened when the WHO was asking people to stay wherever they were.

This is not true.

The WHO has never favoured blanket lockdowns since the beginning of the pandemic. It has supported what it calls ‘stay-at-home orders’, which say people should get out of home only when it is urgent.

On the evening of March 24, 2020, Prime Minister Modi addressed the nation on TV. He announced that the government would impose a complete lockdown on the country from 12 am on March 25 – in four hours.

This correspondent asked WHO officials about India’s lockdown six days later, in a virtual press conference. The event took place at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva. This is how the conversation went (with light edits; the full transcript is available to read here):

Question: You must be aware that India, as part of its lockdown, is witnessing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the form of the movement of migrants from one part of the country to (the) other. I understand that you don’t like commenting on individual countries, but this is an unprecedented crisis. What would be your advice to our government?

WHO Emergency Programme Director Mike Ryan: “It’s important that governments communicate openly and transparently with their people as to the reasons why lockdowns or shut-downs or movement restrictions are occurring, because they do impinge on people’s freedom of movement, and if people and communities are to offer up that freedom of movement they do need to understand why that’s happening.”

Ryan obviously emphasised “open communication”. But Prime Minister Modi announced the unprecedented lockdown for 1.3 billion people with a four-hour notice.

He continued:

“Those movement restrictions are regrettable in all situations; nobody wants to see those happen, but in situations where you have a very, very intense epidemic in one part of a country and in another part of a country it’s not so intense, you may have to implement some measure.”

Ryan refers to a “very very intense epidemic”. India had reported 37 new COVID-19 cases on the day Modi came on TV to announce the lockdown. Was that really an intense scenario? No.

Modi also claimed on Monday that other political parties and governments had committed a great sin (“bahut bada paap”) by helping migrant workers move back home. As factories and construction work shut across the country, migrant workers struggled for a single morsel of food and faced the prospect of walking home on foot, under a scorching summer sun. (There was a news report of one migrant worker eating a dog carcass on a highway.)

Did state governments that allowed migrants to return home actually sin? No.

Ryan had had more to say:

“When such measures [like lockdowns] are put in place, it’s exceptionally important that those measures are carried out with not only the acceptance but with the human rights and dignity of the people affected at the centre” (emphasis added).

The country witnessed migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres on road, often on foot. They were a common sight on important national highways for months. There were queues tens of thousands of people long at bus and train stations for tickets. The dearth of travel options was such that some people tried to travel from Indore to Lucknow in a cement mixer.

Those who did get on trains and buses depended on the goodwill of others for food and water. But many others died of hunger, or when they were run over by passing trains as they slept at night. The scenes lacked any dignity – much less human rights.

(Note: WHO officials have always refrained from naming countries in their replies.)

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added to Ryan’s answer thus:

“You know and I know many people actually have to work every single day to win their daily bread. Governments should take this population into account; if we’re closing or if we’re limiting movements, what is going to happen to those people who have to work on a daily basis and have to earn their bread on a daily basis?”

Prime Minister Modi announced no plan for these daily breadwinners when he announced the lockdown. His government just asked them to stay where they were.

A volunteer distributes food to migrant workers travelling home at a Kanyakumari railway station. Photo: PTI

What India gained

The government’s Economic Survey last year made grandiose claims about the purported gains of the lockdown. It released the survey report in January 2021. But critical elements of the lockdown picture emerged as early as May 2020.

This correspondent wrote at the time about how India failed to achieve the targeted objectives of the lockdown. To recall:

  1. Government officials had said that the lockdown would help cut the chain of transmission. Instead, the daily case count increased by several multiples by the middle of May 2020.
  2. The government failed to adequately augment testing facilities. By mid-May, India was conducting 0.86 tests per 1,000 population – one of the lowest in the world. Many Asian and African nations had better testing rates. Tests were also confined to those who had travelled recently or were a contact of someone who had, or those who had flu-like symptoms.
  3. The government claimed it had improved hospital infrastructure. The second wave swiftly demolished these claims.

What Modi didn’t say

During India’s first COVID-19 wave, Union health ministry officials used to address the press every day. Particularly around April 2020, these addresses made it a point to villanise the Muslim community. Government officials falsely accused its members of being ‘super-spreaders’.

On most days, these pressers would begin with a count of cases among these members. At one point, on April 5, 2020, health ministry joint secretary Lav Agarwal even said: “The doubling rate [of COVID-19 cases] in India is 4.1 days. Had the congregation at Nizamuddin [of an Islamic sect called the Tablighi Jamaat] not happened and additional cases not come, this would have been about 7.14 days.”

A day later, in another press conference, Ryan responded to another of this correspondent’s queries. He chastised India (again, without naming the country) for profiling COVID-19 cases by religion.

“This does not help. Having COVID-19 is not anybody’s fault. Every case is a victim. It is very important that we do not profile the cases on the basis of racial, religious and ethnic lines.”

Prime Minister Modi’s remarks in Parliament yesterday didn’t say anything on this topic.

In sum, the WHO supported restrictions – but didn’t vouch for bringing all activities across the length and breadth of a country to a halt with barely any notice. The WHO also had many caveats and advised multiple support measures, from open communication to not religiously profiling cases.

Prime Minister Modi skipped all of them when he implemented his lockdown – just like he ignored them in yesterday’s speech, too.