Why We Need Data Of Migrant Workers, Kerala Style
Police personnel interact with migrant workers in TNPhoto credit: TN Police

Why We Need Data Of Migrant Workers, Kerala Style

Knowing how many migrants are in which state or country can help effectively deliver support when crises arise

The novel coronavirus, named COVID-19, has ravaged the world, affecting almost every country on the planet. As of May 16, 2020, it had infected over 4.66 million people worldwide with a death toll of over 309,000 people leaving societies and economies all over the world in great turmoil.

Since its spread from China, the countries that have been most hit are the United States, Italy, United Kingdom, France and Spain, with the virus overwhelming the healthcare systems of these more resource-rich countries.

This has raised fears of even worse consequences for countries of lesser means, larger population densities and significantly lesser healthcare means, like India.

India, as of the May 16, 2020, had recorded over 88,000 cases of infection with a total of 2760 deaths. India, in fact was the only country to immediately enforce a total nation-wide lockdown on March 24, 2020 in order to stem the tide of infections all over the country.

However, cases are still increasing at a faster rate in spite of the lockdown, which leaves India in a precarious position to fight the virus.

There is, however, an outlier to this story - the state of Kerala, which recorded the first cases of infections in the country, who were medical students returning from the epicentre of Wuhan, China, and then saw cases increasing throughout late March (in fact, once, Kerala occupied the number one position among states of India).

However, April saw a massive reduction in cases, which has led to stories of Kerala “flattening the curve” well before all states in India, and in fact before many countries in the world.

Kerala & Migrant Data

Kerala has historically been one of the most important centres for internal and international migration in India. The Kerala Migration Survey of 2018 (it is almost 20 years old) had estimated that around 2.1 million emigrants with about 90 percent of them residing in the six Gulf countries.

These countries have been severely hit during the COVID 19 crisis, with a number of Indians – especially from Kerala – being infected and some of them reported to be died too. As of recently, it was found that more than 500 cases were found among Indians in both Kuwait and Dubai, both regions with a sizeable Indian presence.

Due to this, Kerala was one of the hardest hit states in the beginning. There is a clear line that can be drawn from the spread of the pandemic to the incidence of emigration, with the districts of Kasaragod and Kannur particularly hit, with 183 and 116 cases respectively.

What is important to consider is that a large majority of the emigrants from here going to the Gulf countries, which have been severely impacted during the crisis. Given its high connectivity with the outside world, Kerala should have been one of the worst hit regions in the country. However, as of May 16, 2020 there were a total of 577 confirmed COVID cases in Kerala, with only 4 deaths – a remarkably low number.

There are a number of reasons that led to Kerala effectively controlling the spread of the virus within its borders, most of which have been well documented – from a robust, decentralised and accessible healthcare system already capacitated to control epidemics in the past, to a largely literate public with a deep investment into the public goods and local democratic processes to the government’s rigorous approach to following WHO guidelines and protocols for pandemic control.

We would like to look at the effect of another overlooked aspect – that of Kerala’s experience with migration data, especially the Kerala Migration Survey – the only comprehensive large-scale dataset on migration available in India for over two decades.

Understanding International Migration Through The Lens Of A Pandemic

During a pandemic, it is important to note the four phases of transmission (for places that are not the source) that it undertakes throughout its spread:

Stage 1: When the virus is brought from outside through infected persons through travel.

Stage 2: The infected person thus coming inside passes on the virus to close contacts that he/she is in touch with. This phase is known as the phase of local transmission.

Stage 3: The virus starts to spread locally and infects people with no known travel histories to hotspots. At this stage it begins to get difficult to track the source of the virus.

Stage 4: The virus attains a widespread nature of infection, with infections and deaths rapidly increasing at an exponential level.

Out of these steps, the virus and infections can still be isolated and quarantined at Stages 1 and 2.

Countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Taiwan have shown that prompt responses in the first two phases have proved to be vital in curbing the stem of the infections.

Thus, it becomes imperative that countries start planning preventive and precautionary measures well in advance – especially in developing countries, which do not have the capacity to deal with the fallout of the pandemic once it reaches Stages 3 and 4. (The best example now is: United States of America).

A quick and effective response is key. This is the situation that Kerala faced when the first cases started coming in.

However, what is certain is that an innate understanding of Kerala migrants and reliable data had helped the state to plan for the future. The Kerala Migration Study, conducted by the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, has been collecting data on migration from Kerala since 1998.

The government of Kerala has used this extensive dataset to understand and track migration patterns from the state and undertake appropriate policy measures for Kerala’s emigrants over the years.

As the Health Minister had mentioned in an interview, that the knowledge of students being present in Wuhan led the state to begin preparations to initiate procedures to contain the infection if it entered Kerala.

Thus, the state had enough time to prepare ahead and ready its institutions in the eventual event of the pandemic reaching its shores. This proved even more vital when the Gulf countries started getting infected as it was well known of the extent of the Malayali population in the region, giving the government the foresight into the possible extent of the crisis.

Given the fact that it was international migrants that brought the infection to localities in Kerala, an already alert and well-established primary healthcare system with centres in every locality proved invaluable in tracking the infection through primary and secondary sources.

As can be understood, this forms an important part of the barrier against the infection spreading from stages 1 and 2 to 3 and 4. This becomes even more important as India lacks the capacity to conduct mass testing, which has been prescribed by the WHO as the most effective way to curb the transmission of the virus.

Kerala, thus, focused on the issue of mass tracking of people and with strict guidelines for people coming in from abroad – before the imposition of the countrywide lockdown – on quarantine guidelines. This can only take place in a system which is well equipped with data and facts backed up by a robust and vigilant infrastructure.

Therefore, Kerala’s long experience with international migration and engagement with reliable data as well as a well-established and decentralised healthcare system to manage the crisis as it eventually came to Kerala’s shores presents certain lessons when it comes to pandemic preparedness.

Using Migration Data To Transition To A Post COVID World

The COVID crisis has spurred state governments from their slumber over migrant issues into sudden action given the stark importance of it in current times. The vulnerability of migrants – both internal and international – has been put into the spotlight due to the pandemic, and the central and most state governments have failed in responding quickly to mitigate its impact.

However, thanks to the government of Kerala’s two-decade long engagement with the Kerala Migration Study, it was at the forefront at keeping migrants’ issues in the mainstream. For instance, due to the active presence of pressure groups, the government of Kerala was the first to highlight the plight of the expatriate Malayali population in the infected Gulf countries. In fact, Kerala Chief Minster is the only one officially wrote to Prime Minister of India to bring back the Non-Resident Indians/Keralite.

The Non-Resident Keralites Department of the Government (NORKA-Roots), also took the lead in the facilitation of the return Keralites who were out of the state by registering on their website. Over 5.63 lakh Keralites availed of this in the first week itself.

Moreover, it took the lead in excellent provisions for adequate isolation and quarantine facilities, such as readying 2.5 lakh rooms back in April, for expatriates coming from the Gulf.

For internal migrants from other states stuck within its borders, the government took the lead in terms of providing adequate government run shelter homes and providing adequate meals through community kitchens and rations to the over 3 lakh migrant workers housed there.

Thus, while there were some incidences of migrant unrest, it was nowhere near the terrible scenes that were seen all across the country.

Kerala’s serious engagement with migration data and policy has, thus, separated it from the rest of the states in India when it comes to dealing with the immense fallout of the current crisis. Whether Kerala succeeds in quelling the subsequent waves of infections as more and more people return back to their homes remains to be seen.

While there was a lull in cases over the previous weeks, a recent spike in cases has put the state back on alert. It is also important to be vigilant in order to control the spread in the coming months. Further, the incoming crisis of return migrants and their rehabilitation and re-integration into society presents the next great challenge for the central and state governments.

However, Kerala’s understanding of migration and the robust system of contact tracing in place leads to a certain amount of confidence that it may and transition into a post-COVID world as soon as possible.

At a national level, this is important for other states, especially those with high emigrant states such as Punjab Gujarat, Bihar, Rajasthan Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh, and also for central legislations like the proposed Emigration Bill.

While one of the provisions of the Bill is to create a centralised database on emigration, currently the only data we have on international migration remains the incomplete one on emigration clearance. The creation of an India-wide migration database such as an India Migration Survey, thus, attains even greater urgency. Kerala and the Kerala model of Migration Survey certainly present lessons worth learning and replicating.

(About the authors

S Irudaya Rajan is Professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala, led the Kerala Migration Survey 2018 and Member of the Kerala Government Expert Committee on Covid-19.

Ashwin Kumar is a research associate with the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala

All opinions are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of The Lede’s)

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