NEW DELHI — As dawn broke over Mumbai, India, on Wednesday, Kaleem Ansari sat among a crowd of thousands outside the central rail station waiting for his train to pull in. Mr. Ansari, a factory worker, carried old clothes in his backpack and 200 rupees — not quite $3 — in his pocket.
His factory, which makes sandals, had just closed. Mumbai was locking down as a second wave of the coronavirus rippled through India. Mr. Ansari, originally from a small village nearly a thousand miles away, had been in Mumbai a year ago when it first went into lockdown, and he had vowed not to suffer through another one.
“I remember what happened last time,” he said. “I just have to get out of here.”
Cities in India are once again locking down to fight Covid-19 — and workers are once again pouring out and heading back home to rural areas, which health experts fear could accelerate the spread of the virus and devastate poorly equipped villages, as it did last time. Thousands are fleeing hot spots in cities as India hits another record, with more than 184,000 daily new infections reported on Wednesday. Bus stations are packed. Crowds are growing at railway stations.
And in at least some of their destinations, according to local officials and migrants who have already made the journey, they are arriving in places hardly ready to test arrivals and quarantine the sick.
one of the world’s toughest national lockdowns, eliminating millions of jobs virtually overnight. That lockdown fueled the most disruptive migration across the Indian subcontinent since it was split in two between India and Pakistan in 1947. Tens of millions of lowly paid migrant workers and their families fled cities by train, bus, cargo truck, bicycle, even by blistered feet to reach home villages hundreds of miles away, where the cost of living was cheaper and they could help and be helped by loved ones.
Hundreds died on the sweltering highways. Even more died back home. The migration also played a significant role in spreading the virus, as local officials in remote districts reported that they were swamped with the sick.
iron frames on which the bodies are placed have melted. In Chhattisgarh, a rural state in central India, morgues have overflowed with decomposing corpses.
With the virus closing in, many people have decided to flee.
“I didn’t want to get sick all alone,” said Ajay Kumar, a vendor of mobile phone covers, who left Bangalore this past weekend for a village in Jharkhand State. “In Bangalore, the cases are increasing. And my wife said, ‘Business is not so good. Why don’t you come back?’”
“At least we are together,” Mr. Kumar said.
The full scope of India’s ability to monitor the migration is not clear. But in some places, the sudden rush of migrants appears to be taking local officials by surprise. The lack of preparations seems to mirror the larger sense that this country, whether because of fatigue or familiarity, has been more nonchalant during this second wave than it was during the first one.