Five weeks after a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus was announced, the Centre will allow migrant workers to return home. Five weeks during which hundreds of thousands of workers set out on foot to cover the hundreds of kilometres that lay between them and home, some dying from exhaustion. Five weeks of near starvation, lost livelihoods and despair. Five weeks of braving police lathis as they tried to get food and rations. Five weeks of being clapped into migrant shelters that have been described as jails.

Instead of putting workers through such prolonged anguish, why did the Centre not allow them to go home before the lockdown was imposed, when the number of reported cases of Covid-19 was in the hundreds instead of over 30,000?

Since the government has worked in mysterious ways through the health crisis and the lockdown, it is only possible to guess at its rationale. The lockdown seems to be following the health ministry’s plan for a “geographical quarantine” aimed at containing large outbreaks – “near absolute interruption of movement of people to and from a relatively large defined geographic area”. In March, the government might have reasoned that letting migrant workers go home, mostly from the cities where they worked and which were feared to be hotspots, would risk spreading the infection to small towns and rural areas that were relatively untouched and had poor health infrastructure. A lockdown would arguably buy time to ramp up testing and infrastructure in these districts.

By all accounts, neither has been strengthened significantly. The criteria for RT-PCR tests, which produce results in 12-24 hours, remain narrowly defined. Less reliable but much faster rapid antibody tests were to fill the gap and help in mapping the spread of the virus. The antibody testing kits were slow to arrive, reaching India from China only on April 16. These were then found faulty and recalled, after which the government suspended antibody testing. This suggests migrant workers streaming back home will go through basic thermal screening – just as they would have five weeks ago.

According to a survey by the Development Data Lab, most districts in India had less than six hospital beds per 1,000 people. Only a couple of districts in Tamil Nadu were handsomely provided with 30-60 beds per 1,000 people. There is little evidence to suggest hospital capacities – beds, manpower, ventilators – have been bolstered in recent weeks. The Centre itself flagged gaps in critical care infrastructure and isolation facilities in a meeting with the states. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam, some of the states that will see large numbers of migrants returning, have the most shortages.

Meanwhile, as the government took the costly decision to keep migrant workers in cities, away from home, community networks and access to rural welfare schemes, it did little to support them. Many urban daily wage workers stranded in the lockdown lack even the basic safety net. The so-called relief package announced by the Centre did little more than front load or expand entitlements under existing welfare schemes. As some have pointed out, it misunderstood the urgent imperatives of relief, which cannot be met just by relying on already rickety social protection schemes.

While the government painted a rosy picture, assuring the courts that all daily needs of those stranded were being met, reports and surveys suggested otherwise. In a survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, between April 10 and 22, 74% households said they had lost regular incomes. About 60% said their food supplies would not last them the week, a sharp rise from 44% in the first two weeks of the lockdown.

For five weeks, the country’s poorest have been punished by a badly planned lockdown. Erratic communication by the government has kept them guessing at every step. On March 24, they were halted in their tracks by a three-week lockdown announced at four hours’ notice. On April 14, thousands thronged Mumbai’s Bandra station, throwing social distancing to the winds, to urge that trains be provided to take them home. The current announcement is suitably vague on the details. They deserved better than this.