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Road Safety during COVID-19: Ensuring millions get home safely during India’s lockdown

When COVID-19 began spreading in earnest, road safety and public health advocates collectively turned their attention, focus and energy on the virus. At first, it looked like traditional advocacy efforts for other issues were taking a backseat. But, over the past 10 months, it has become overwhelmingly clear that public health issues like road safety are still just as front-and-center as they have always been. If anything, COVID-19 brought to light the shortcomings of public health systems and policies — and the ways public health and social issues are interconnected.

The importance of road safety, an area that rarely is a front page headline and struggles to be prioritized across low and middle income countries, is among the issues that have been brought to the forefront during the pandemic.

In March, India went into the world’s largest lockdown. While this was intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, it also had some unintended consequences. With all forms of transportation coming to a halt, millions of migrant workers were left stranded across India. The government eventually issued an order allowing for a government-led bus program to transport migrants home.

Watch here to learn more about this effort, as presented at the 2020 Triangle Global Health Conference:

Road safety advocates took notice. With a surge of people returning to the roads, there was about to be a rise in road traffic injury and death. Advocates tracking road traffic crashes found that 750 people had lost their lives during the lockdown — the same ratio of road crashes to road deaths as pre-lockdown — busting the myth that roads were safer with more people inside. Out of the 750 deaths, 200 were migrant workers and 40 of them were essential workers. By May 2020, the Road Safety Network, a coalition of road safety organizations, wrote a letter to the Union Home Secretary — who was overseeing the transportation of those stranded during the lockdown — with this data, urging the Government of India to keep the roads safe. The coalition provided recommendations for safety protocols around speeding, driving while fatigued and other recommendations specifically to protect the passengers and other vulnerable road users.

These efforts resulted in the inclusion of safe mobility for migrant workers within communications from the central Government to various states, improved and increased public discourse of road safety as a major public health issue and increased coverage of road safety within digital and traditional media.

The pandemic has added unforeseen layers to road safety efforts, pushing advocates to approach the issue differently, act quickly and continuously work toward ensuring policies and interventions are in place to protect those who are most vulnerable.

We do know one truth: that making our roads safer, our health systems stronger, and our societies healthier will support the fight against COVID-19.