Guest Column: Conquering Covid in rural areas
As the coronavirus continues its ravenous march, the infection has started rapidly spreading in rural areas as well. This is a worrisome development as 70% of India’s population of 1.36 billion, lives in 6,64,369 villages, where medical facilities are scarce.
The fight against Covid in villages has to be fought on a war-footing since the rural health infrastructure is weak and collecting information is problematic. India has around 23,390 primary health centres (PHCs) and 1,45,894 sub-centres. The disease will be harder to manage in villages as compared to cities.
While combating the virus in the villages, the health departments should involve the headman and local panchayats, the five-man committee that administers the village. Villagers have to be briefed sensitively about the dangers of Covid and how to manage it. The panchayat should maintain records of infections and recoveries in the village. Since data collection is weak in the villages, it is possible that we may not know the extent of the problem in the rural areas in time. Doctors will not be easily available in villages even on phones. Thus, the panchayats will have to liaise closely between the villagers and health departments.
Local governing bodies should form an auxiliary volunteer force ‘Covid Warriors’, comprising youngsters who will brief people of the precautions to be taken. Medical students from the state should lead this exercise. Social distancing should be practised in weekly markets, which attract hundreds of villagers.
Opinion leaders in villages — school teachers, priests, and doctors — should be roped in to raise awareness. These opinion leaders have credibility and thus should take the responsibility of educating villagers. This awareness is vital for many afflicted persons may not even know they have Covid. They may mistake it for an ordinary cold. The key message should be that the disease is curable and patients should report any symptoms at the earliest.
The facilities in the primary health centres in the villages need to be augmented to conduct Covid tests. It will be a challenge to get vaccines, oxygen, oximeters and drugs such as Remdesivir in adequate quantities to primary health centres in the villages due to the current shortages. Nevertheless, district authorities need to establish robust supply chains at the earliest.
Doctors and scientists have underscored the importance of face masks in the fight against Covid. Yet, many villagers do not use masks. Some just wear it around the chin. Many people find it inconvenient to wear a mask, because it reduces the oxygen intake. Research is needed to improve the mask, so that it protects and also ensures adequate oxygen. Free distribution of masks by the governments can also help fight Covid.
The corporate sector can also produce masks and distribute them free of cost in villages, as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. They can print the names of some of their brands on the masks for advertising mileage.
One out of every three 4G subscribers lives in villages in India, as per a study by CyberMedia Research. With the use of smart phones and internet leapfrogging in villages, advertising agencies should prepare special Covid rural campaigns for mobile phones. Mobile phones, television and radio can be aggressively deployed by state governments to guide villagers on fighting Covid.
A major challenge being faced by the authorities is the transportation of vaccines to the 2,36,004 small villages, with a population of 500 or less. It will be an enormous undertaking, to transport the vaccine to tiny villages. Governments should network with companies such as Nestle, Unilever and Colgate to distribute the vaccine. These companies have distribution reach even in villages with a population of 1,500 or less through their vans.
Companies engaged in products such as frozen foods and ice-creams can assist in logistics of vaccine distribution in villages. Health departments can deploy vans with freezers to transport the vaccines to villages. It will also be useful to create songs, based on the local folk music, incorporating fight Covid messages. The song can be played during mask distribution and demonstrations on social distancing.
There is an urgent need to augment health facilities in primary health centres in terms of beds, health facilities and oxygen. The battle against Covid in villages should commence right now. We should not be caught unawares.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based management consultant)