Covid-19: Testing all those returning back pose a challenge to most NE states
Guwahati: The North-East, home to around 3.5% of the country’s population, is staring at a major challenge as thousands of stranded people are set to return to their respective native places amid the Central government’s bid to ease lockdown restrictions, which were enforced from March 25 to contain the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.
Inadequate testing facilities in the entire region, comprising seven states, have become a cause for concern, as most of them are dependent on Assam.
The state governments in the region are worried about the daily spike in Covid-19 positive cases from other parts of the country from where the stranded people are trying to return home.
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu sought the Centre’s support in procuring an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-approved TrueNat machine during Monday’s video-conference that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had convened to seek all the CMs’ feedback on whether to ease or extend lockdown restrictions.
TrueNat, which has been used to detect tuberculosis (TB) and also approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a small battery-operated user-friendly machine that can conduct Covid-19 tests and the results are obtained within an hour.
Khandu said that the machine is needed for conducting “faster and effective tests amid a rise in interstate travellers entering Arunachal Pradesh”.
The CM’s concerns stem from the fact that Arunachal has only one Covid-19 testing laboratory in Naharlagun, whose daily capacity is around 70. The state is completely dependent on neighbouring Assam to test more swab samples.
“We expect around 12,000 stranded people to return home and each one of them needs to undergo a Covid-19 test. However, we don’t have the bandwidth to conduct so many tests in such a short span of time. We’re working on setting up another laboratory in the eastern part of the state by end-May to ease the burden on the Naharlagun facility,” said Arunachal health minister Alo Libang.
Arunachal has recorded only one Covid-19 positive case to date and the patient has also recovered. But, the remote and the largest state in the north-east could be staring at a healthcare emergency, as thousands of stranded people are expected to return home soon, as concerns are raised about scant testing facilities.
Other states in the region are also feeling the heat due to screening and testing inadequacies, as the stranded people are headed home after the government announced the easing of lockdown restrictions.
“Around 10,000 people are expected to return to Mizoram and all of them will undergo tests. However, they can’t be tested at one go. Initially, all the returnees will be quarantined and then the tests will be conducted on a priority basis. We’re working overtime to set up more laboratories,” said Mizoram CM Zoramthanga.
Mizoram’s lone Covid-19 positive patient, a pastor, has also recovered. So far, the state, which has its lone laboratory in the state capital Aizawl, has conducted only 206 tests.
Meghalaya is expecting around 13,000 people to return to the state. Though the state health authorities plan to screen all the returnees, tests will be conducted only on symptomatic patients.
Meghalaya, too, had only one laboratory at the North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS) in the state capital, Shillong, till recently. A second laboratory, set up at Tura in the Garo Hills, however, has become functional.
“The daily testing capacity at the NEIGRIHMS and Tura is over 200 and below 100, respectively,” said Meghalaya health minister AL Hek.
Assam is expecting nearly one lakh people to return home and the state government is pulling out all stops to ramp up its screening and testing facilities. Plans are afoot to allow a staggered entry of returnees in a bid to ensure an effective administrative control.
The state government has requisitioned five trains from Indian Railways to bring back stranded migrant workers. The trains will repatriate up to 10,000 people, who have been stranded in Chennai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kochi and Hyderabad, from Tuesday. The trains will run till May 24.
Though Assam has seven testing laboratories – the highest in the region – neighbouring states such as Arunachal, Meghalaya and Nagaland are also utilising these facilities.
Around 17,000 stranded people from Tripura have registered themselves on the state government portal, seeking to return home at the earliest.
Tripura has a single testing laboratory at Agartala’s GB Pant Hospital, and two more are likely to become operational soon. The state government plans to conduct mandatory and random tests on symptomatic and asymptomatic people, respectively.
Manipur has two testing laboratories in its state capital Imphal, but the state government is under tremendous pressure, as around 34,000 stranded people are planning to return home soon.
Nagaland, which has not registered a single Covid-19 positive case yet, launched a state government-run website on May 7, urging the stranded people to register on the portal if they wish to return home. The registration closed on Monday, and around 18,000 are waiting to come back to Nagaland.