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Coronavirus: 94,000 returnees to haunt Punjab, land of India’s migrant workers

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 11:00pm, 25 March, 2020


  • One in 10 households in the Indian state of Punjab counts among its members a non-resident Indian working overseas

  • The state set alarm bells ringing when it announced 94,000 had recently returned, from Covid-19 hotspots including the US, UK, Spain and Italy


Workers disinfect a statue of Indian Sikh independence activist Shaheed Udham Singh in Amritsar as a precaution against the coronavirus. Photo: AFP

For the past two weeks, 27-year-old Pulkit Singh has been spending much of his waking life on social media.

Like everyone else, Singh is worried about the coronavirus pandemic – and for good reason.


Singh lives in the north Indian state of Punjab, where one in 10 households counts among its members a non-resident Indian (NRI) working overseas.

On Monday, the Punjab government set alarm bells ringing when it announced the recent return of 94,000 of these NRIs.


Police personnel distribute free food to people in need during the first day of a 21-day government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus in Amritsar. Photo: AFP

Singh is worried the recent returnees will spread the disease by failing to take adequate safety precautions. He sees many of them walking around his neighbourhood and likens them to his neighbours, who recently returned from a holiday in Thailand and also have not followed quarantine procedures.

“Somehow, they feel they are not responsible for the health of their own families and people around them,” he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an unprecedented, complete lockdown of the nation for 21 days starting from midnight on Tuesday as the number of infections nationwide rose to 562. By Wednesday evening, India had reported 606 infections and 11 deaths.

Singh fears Punjab could soon be at the heart of the problem, as migrant workers return from countries hit hard by the virus, such as Italy, Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The state alone has recorded 29 infections and one death and has quarantined 1,155 people.

On Monday, the state’s health minister BS Sidhu wrote to the Indian health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, warning of an “alarming” rise in the number of infections, asking for more central funds to halt the spread.


Punjab has traditionally seen very high migration to countries including the US and UK and particularly in more recent years to European nations including Spain and Italy.

In Spain, for instance, half of all Indian immigrants are Sikhs from Punjab, numbering 21,000. In Italy, the Indian diaspora, estimated at more than 200,000, consists of a significant proportion of Sikhs from Punjab involved in dairy production.

Punjab-based farmer leader Ramandeep Singh Mann said many migrant workers had returned to India after the coronavirus broke out in their host countries.


Police personnel distribute free food during the coronavirus lockdown in Amritsar. Photo: AFP

“Many of these migrants have blue-collar, informal jobs in their destination countries. So, there was a sense among them that they would not be able to access proper health care and might be discriminated against, if they were to get infected,” said Mann.

He said another reason so many had returned was because lockdowns abroad were bringing economic activity to a halt.

In India, the spread of the coronavirus initially was slow. As recently as the beginning of March, the country had only three confirmed cases.

“As a result, most of these returning migrants came back but did not pay heed to quarantine instructions and precautions. They went around and carried on with their lives as usual,” said Mann.

Punjab’s first – and so far only – death was of a 70-year-old man who had recently returned from a two-week trip to Italy and Germany. He is thought to have transmitted the virus to at least 21 other people, including his closest family members, all of whom are being treated in government facilities.


However, not everyone blames returning NRIs for the spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19. Many instead blame the government for a lack of proactive measures to halt its spread.

Rahul Kundra, 22, who returned in February from Vancouver, where he studies part-time and works at a pizzeria, said there were no screenings when he arrived at New Delhi’s international airport.

So after his return he even decided it was OK to take a holiday domestically.

“I waited for about 20 days, but when I did not show symptoms, I thought it was OK to travel across [the country] and take a holiday,” he said.


Hindu devotees outside the closed Mata Longa Wali Devi temple in Amritsar, on the first day of the coronavirus lockdown. Photo: AFP

His return to his job and studies is now uncertain. All forms of public transport have been stopped until April 14, when the lockdown is expected to end.

Jasbeer Singh Gill, the ex-president of NRI Sabha, an organisation that functions under the Punjab government and has powers to liaise between the NRI community in Punjab and the government, said the government was exaggerating the threat.

“Of the NRIs that came to Punjab since October, most have gone back already. Only 3,000-4,000 NRIs are still in Punjab. The government seems to have mixed up its numbers,” he insisted.

Gill said that NRIs, though vulnerable, were unlikely to spread the coronavirus. “Most of these NRIs are educated and have already heard about the virus because they were in some of the worst-hit countries in the West. So many came back and quarantined themselves.”

Even so, the Punjab government seems not to be taking any chances. Even before the nationwide lockdown, it had imposed a strict, unrelenting curfew across the state.

Punjab health department officials did not respond to requests for comment. An official in the state’s disaster control room, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was setting up 22 quarantine centres across the state.

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