Pandemic Becoming a Crisis in Rural India

May 16, 2021 Updated: May 16, 2021

NEW DELHI—While international attention has been focused on the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India’s major cities, the situation in the vast countryside is becoming worrisome. Those fighting the pandemic point to poverty, a lack of awareness, and fear as complicating factors.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned in a speech on May 14 that the pandemic is rapidly spreading to rural India and urged citizens to take precautions.

Rural India encompasses more than 640,000 villages and more than 890 million people, which is more than double the total population of the United States. It’s not only extremely culturally and linguistically diverse but also geographically variegated, with some regions more urbanized while others are extremely remote, such as those in the high reaches of the Himalayas.

“I want to warn you about corona. This pandemic is spreading fast in rural villages. Every government is making efforts to stop this. But awareness of this among rural people and the cooperation of panchayats is equally important,” Modi said.

By “every government,” Modi is referring to the governments of the nation’s 28 states and eight federally governed territories, the most populous of them are larger than many European nations. Panchayats are the governing bodies in villages.

The southern state of Karnataka, with a population of 64 million, reported its highest weekly death toll of 3,500 from May 7 to May 13 since the outbreak of the pandemic last year.

When the lockdown was imposed in Karnataka’s capital, Bangalore, on May 3, more than 600,000 moved to their family homes in the countryside from the city, according to Nagasimha G. Rao, the director of the Child Rights Trust, a charity that works with children and gram panchayats (legally authorized village local governments) in four districts of the state.

Rao said those leaving the capital didn’t follow social distancing when they traveled on public transport, which worsened the situation in the countryside. In his village of Chalati, which is 14 miles from Bangalore, seven people have died during the second wave of the pandemic.

The village is home to 105 families and has a population of 600 people. When Rao talked with The Epoch Times on May 16, there were 40 COVID-19 positive people in the village.

“People aren’t coming forward to take tests when they have a fever or other symptoms because they think that if they go to the hospital or for a test and if they put them in isolation and if they die, nobody will come to take the body,” Rao said. He noted that not everyone has masks in the villages and that those who do use the same ones for two or three weeks because they can’t afford to change them more frequently.

He said people are getting rice and a few other food items free from the government. Various charities are working in the rural regions, but “awareness is a big problem” for the rural population. He urged the government to give free masks in rural regions.

“The children are also suffering from depression because the news anchors are every day showing the dead bodies, and also patients who are dying in front of the hospital,” said Rao, who has been working with children for more than two decades and is currently providing psychological counseling over the phone.

Epoch Times Photo
A police officer ties a facemask on a woman after police in rural areas launched a free cab service for villagers to the COVID-19 coronavirus testing and vaccination centers on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, on May 3, 2021. (Narinder Nanu / AFP)

More Panic and Fear

Apeksha Suryawanshi, a community worker with a charity called Kalapandri, works in three villages in the Latur district of Maharashtra state in western India. She told The Epoch Times by phone on May 15 that during the first wave of the pandemic, ASHA (accredited social health activist) workers were proactively taking villagers for testing while the pandemic was less severe. This time, during the second wave, they are worried about catching the virus themselves and are reluctant to accompany villagers to the testing centers.

“When one person tests positive, they are asked to live in the fields [where they build a makeshift hut]. It has become a kind of rule,” Suryawanshi said. If someone comes from outside, the villagers—on their own initiative—are making them quarantine in the village school.

She said that while the government is giving free rice and wheat to people during the second wave, it’s not sufficient as people are forced to live on boiled rice, which isn’t their staple diet.

Suryawanshi’s co-worker, Madhukar Galfade, who works as a community organizer in 13 villages in the Ranapur block of Latur, said that there’s a lot of fear in the countryside about going to the hospital.

“Because those who went, died. So people tend to take medicine at home. Most of the vaccination registration is also online. People in many rural areas still don’t have access to the internet. Until the government reaches every home with the vaccination, it won’t reach people,” Galfade said.

The Epoch Times traveled through 15 villages in the remote hinterland of Latur for a week last November during the first wave of the pandemic to report on the socio-cultural impact of the pandemic in the community.

At that time, Maya Sorte, a survivor of child marriage and an advocate of empowering young women, was interviewed by The Epoch Times in a school in Chakkur in the district.

Sorte, in a recent interview, says the second wave has spread so much panic in her region that of 14 people who died due to COVID-19 in her village of Wabwal, five died due to heart attacks after learning that they had tested positive.

“People are suffering from panic and illusions. They think if they go to the hospital, they will not get oxygen and they will die,” said Sorte, referring to panic sparked by widespread reports of oxygen shortages in hospitals, particularly in the national capital, New Delhi, during the second wave.

Among the 800 families in Wabwal, almost every family has had a member test positive for COVID-19.

Epoch Times Photo
In this picture taken on June 9, 2020, accredited social health activist (ASHA) workers talk to a woman during a door-to-door survey to check on residents after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Bahadarpur village in Meerut district. – (XAVIER GALIANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Petition the Government

Vikas Sharma, a wholesale dealer in Bulandshahr, a district in Uttar Pradesh state in northern India, which is more than 60 miles from the capital Delhi, was getting calls from around the rural parts of his city about people with COVID-like symptoms.

So he petitioned the district magistrate and within two days of his call, district officials ordered COVID-19 testing in the villages he highlighted.

When The Epoch Times talked with Sharma on May 13, which was over a week since that testing started, he said that more than half the people in those villages had been tested, and the positive rate was 10 to 15 percent.

“We get calls and people tell us in this village 50 people are sick; in another village, 20 people are sick and no one is helping us. We then locate that village, visit it and verify it. We visited one such village, and people told us 12 or 13 people have died there. We then wrote a letter, got it signed by people, and submitted it with the district administration,” Sharma said, adding that he travels to two to three new villages daily with his four-person team.

Sharma highlighted two villages, Elna and Kelawan, that lost more than 15 people each in a week’s time.

His team has a COVID-19 medicine kit in their car, and they are linked with a doctor in the city, who offers video consultations once the team finds someone with symptoms.

“Even if five to seven or 10 people are sick, they should come forward and demand testing from the local administration,” Sharma said. “If two to four deaths happen in some villages, the people should inform the nearby Primary Health Care center (PHC) and health workers should visit that village to verify the situation.”

While there are 23,391 primary health centers and 145,894 sub-centers catering to more than 72 percent of India’s rural population, the PHCs are ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic, according to many people who spoke to The Epoch Times.

More than one person, including Sharma, said that each PHC tests only 25 to 50 potential COVID-19 cases a day, which they said is not sufficient. The Epoch Times couldn’t independently verify that claim.

“When people force them, it may go up to 100,” Sharma said.

Sharma lost his father to COVID-19 last year, and he dedicates his work to him. He’s connected to a political party, but he insists that he’s currently coordinating with volunteers from across various political parties and with a charity for virus relief in villages in Bulandshahr.

“One more problem is of registration for vaccination in villages because of lack of internet literacy,” he said. For 18-  to 44-year-olds, the process is online, but above the age of 45, the registration can also be done on the spot.

Epoch Times Photo
A medical worker inoculates a Border Security Force (BSF) personnel with a dose of the Covishield, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 coronavirus vaccine, at a civil hospital in Ajnala village, about 17 miles from Amritsar on April 1, 2021, as India expanded its coronavirus vaccination drive to the 45-60 age group. (Narinder Nanu/AFP)

Vaccination and Rumors

Neerav Sharma, 32, a lawyer, registered online for vaccination and traveled for his first dose to the Primary Health Center in Kherwara village in Udaipur district in the northern state of Rajasthan on May 14, along with his brother.

Sharma told The Epoch Times over the phone that they witnessed massive lines to the PHC, but that there was only one nurse to administer vaccines to everyone. She had fainted at least three times on that day, according to witnesses.

“There was no social distancing as the passage to the PHC was narrow for vehicles. There was lots of traffic and rush,” Sharma said, adding that it would have been better if a vaccination camp had been set up in an open ground with space for social distancing.

Kurpuswamy Raman, the director of READ, a charity that works in 68 villages in the Erode district in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, said the second wave has created fear and panic.

Raman says he’s pleased that the just-elected state government is giving 4,000 rupees (about $55) to every family with a ration card to soften the loss of income during the pandemic. He said families have already received 2,000 rupees in cash this month and will receive the remaining next month. That’s in addition to the free food distributed to those below the poverty line.

Raman said there’s a need for an awareness campaign to mitigate panic and rumors.

“They have fear about vaccination. They are not believing because recently one of the cinema actors, Mr. Vivek, died one day after taking the vaccination. So there’s a rumor that he got the vaccination, and that’s why he died,” he said.

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