Hundreds of migrant workers were forcibly bathed in sodium hypochlorite solution, a disinfectant, after they arrived in the Bareilly district of northern India’s Uttar Pradesh on Sunday.
Videos of the forced sanitation circulated on social media on Sunday, leading to public criticism from opposition leaders. Bareilly government officials ordered an inquiry into the incident on Monday.
— TOI Bareilly (@TOIBareilly) March 30, 2020
The migrant workers arrived in Uttar Pradesh amid a 21-day nationwide lockdown across India, intended to curb the spread of the Chinese coronavirus in the country. In footage of the incident, the migrants are forced to squat on a road near a bus station and be sprayed with the solution.
Sodium hypochlorite is a chlorine compound often used as a disinfectant or a bleaching agent. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), citing a health study into the chemical, state on their website that “acute accidental exposure to household bleach in use or in foreseeable misuse situations results, in the great majority of the cases, in minor, transient adverse effects on health.”
The migrants reportedly arrived in Bareilly on special buses run by the government. Local officials confirmed the migrants had endured a chemical bath upon entering the district, claiming the action was necessary to contain the possible spread of the Chinese coronavirus.
“We tried to keep them safe and asked them to shut their eyes. It’s natural they will get wet,” said Ashok Gautam, an officer in charge of the Chinese coronavirus mitigation group in Bareilly.
District magistrate Nitish Kumar admitted the action may have crossed the line.
“We have looked into the video. Teams of Bareilly Nagar Nigam (civic body) and fire brigade were asked to sanitize buses. But they went overboard. We have ordered action against the concerned people. Those affected are being treated under the guidance of CMO (chief medical officer),” Kumar said. Earlier on Monday, Kumar said there had been orders to carry out medical check-ups on all people entering the city.
Mohd Afzal, one of the migrant workers sprayed with the solution on Sunday, shared his experience with Hindustan Times on Monday.
“About 50 of us were sitting and waiting for food at the bus adda [bus station] when some men in protective suits came and began spraying water on us. They said that they were from the sanitation team and were sanitizing us. The children began crying.” Azfal – a resident of Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh who works for a courier company in Noida, a different city in Uttar Pradesh – added that children in the group complained of itching in their eyes, and some developed rashes.
Beginning March 25, the nationwide lockdown designed to contain the population and break the chain of Chinese coronavirus transmission has caused the opposite effect in some areas. Sparking a grand exodus from major cities, people have been flooding highways across the country to escape a shortage of money and food in urban centers during the lockdown.
Announced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24, the 21-day nationwide lockdown has recently produced reports of other abuses of power, such as police beating people with sticks for breaking curfew.
At press time Monday, India had 1,071 infections and 29 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus.