The Virus Trains: How Lockdown Chaos Spread Covid-19 Across India

Railway officials also claim that the trains were the safest way to get migrant workers home.

“India has done exceptionally well in controlling the spread of disease compared to some of the most materially advanced countries in the world,” said DJ Narain, a spokesman for the Ministry of Railways.

In total, the government organized 4,621 Shramik Specials, relocating more than 6 million people. As they left the cities of India, which became hot spots, many returnees carried the virus with them, but they kept coming. Surat, an industrial center, saw more than half a million workers leave by trains.

“It felt like doomsday,” said Ram Singhasan, a ticket collector. “When you saw how many people crowded outside, it looked like the end of the world was coming.”

On March 24, at 8:00 pm, Mr. Modi pressed the lock button. In a televised address, he ordered the entire nation to stay in their homes for three weeks – starting in four hours.

The decision was purely Modi: sudden, dramatic and resolute, as when he abruptly wiped out nearly 90 percent of Indian currency accounts in 2016, a measure he said was necessary to fight corruption, but which proved to be economically devastating.

Prafulla and Rabindra Behera had just finished a dinner of rice, lentils and potatoes, their usual fare. They lived in filthy, bare rooms in Surat’s industrial estate and slept wall to wall on the floor with half a dozen other workers. Within minutes of Mr. Modi’s address, they started receiving a call.

“Everyone thought the same: this will soon be over and somehow the days will pass,” Rabindra said.