New Covid-19 hotspots are emerging in rural villages across India

Updated on Jun 22, 2020 10:07 AM IST

Initially isolated from the epidemic that has swamped the capital New Delhi and financial center Mumbai, rural areas were exposed when millions of migrant workers who lost their jobs in the cities when the government implemented a strict nationwide lockdown on March 25 went home.

Home to nearly 70% of India’s 1.3 billion population, India’s villages have little access to health care and are struggling to support themselves through the country’s prolonged economic slowdown.(Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO)
Home to nearly 70% of India’s 1.3 billion population, India’s villages have little access to health care and are struggling to support themselves through the country’s prolonged economic slowdown.(Yogendra Kumar/HT PHOTO)
ByBloomberg | Posted by Prashasti Singh

After overwhelming India’s megacities, the coronavirus is now moving through the country’s vast hinterland.

Home to nearly 70% of India’s 1.3 billion population, the nation’s villages have little access to health care and are struggling to support themselves through the country’s prolonged economic slowdown.

Click here for full Covid-19 coverage

Initially isolated from the epidemic that has swamped the capital New Delhi and financial center Mumbai, rural areas were exposed when millions of migrant workers who lost their jobs in the cities when the government implemented a strict nationwide lockdown on March 25 went home.

The states of Bihar, Assam, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh received the most number of returning laborers -- now they are also witnessing the sharpest rise in new cases in the two weeks to June 8, according to internal government estimates seen by Bloomberg. In the rural districts of Rajasthan and Karnataka, the virus is also spreading rapidly, it showed.

Infections have now spread to 98 of the country’s 112 poorest rural districts, up from 34 on April 15, according to the report from NITI Aayog, the government’s planning body. Nearly 2,250 new cases were added in those districts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration runs the risk of a burgeoning death toll if the pandemic’s spread is not checked in rural India, where under-funded health care infrastructure and poor living conditions provide fertile ground for the virus. India is already the world’s fourth most affected country, and an exponential rise in cases in the villages could catapult it higher. With the crisis pushing the economy toward its first full-year contraction in more than four decades, the likelihood of increasing social unrest continues to grow.

The Prime Minister’s Office didn’t respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

‘Living in fear’

In the agricultural Ganjam district in Odisha, the Choudhari Tikarapada village of 5,000 people was coronavirus free till the end of May.

That all changed when about 200 laborers returned home to the area after they lost their jobs in the states of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu during the lockdown. They were quarantined for seven days before entering the village. Soon after 13 were found Covid-19 positive, prompting the administration to declare it a containment zone, stopping any movement of people.

“If tests are conducted in my village then more infected persons will be found,” said villager Sadananda Sahu, adding it is impossible to maintain social distancing and hygiene in his area. “We are living in fear.”

Districts like Ganjam are among India’s poorest and have a skeletal health infrastructure, with most villagers accessing hospitals in nearby cities. Indis spent just 3.7% of gross domestic product on health care in 2016, putting it in the bottom 25 countries globally, according to the most recent World Bank data, leaving hospitals at risk of becoming quickly overwhelmed with virus cases.

All 33 rural districts in Rajasthan have also been affected, after more than 1.1 million laborers from cities including Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad came home in May, said Raghu Sharma, the desert state’s health minister. “They came to their villages from highly infected places,” said Sharma. “Thus it spread in the villages of Rajasthan.”

The state has set up quarantine facilities in each village, deployed senior level officials to monitor them and and formed village panels to check people’s movement, Sharma said. The state has enough isolation beds, ICU rooms, and personal protective equipment to deal with the situation and was ramping up testing capacity to 40,000 per day from current 25,250 over the next two weeks, he said.

Low testing

“Rural death rates for nearly all infectious conditions are considerably higher than in urban areas,” said Prabhat Jha, professor at the University of Toronto, citing a study. He called on the government to release all de-identified data on positive tests so epidemiologists can better understand how the virus is traveling through India. “Had the lockdown been a true lockdown, with workers not being kicked out of their urban places of residence, the problem would not have spread,” Jha said.

India’s low testing rates over the last two months have added to the uncertainty. India had tested more than 6.8 million samples as of June 20, according to the Indian Council for Medical Research. The country has so far reported more than 410,000 infections and nearly 13,300 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The eastern state of Jharkhand has about 1,500 confirmed cases. Just 117 are from urban centers, while the rest are from rural areas, which witnessed a surge following arrival of people from outside the state, said Nitin Kulkarni, secretary of the health department. The authorities have worked to stop the spread by isolating infected people at quarantine centers, Kulkarni said on June 11.

About 5.7 million migrants have been shifted to various destinations across the country by special trains and a further 4.1 million by road transport, according to a government filing in the country’s top court.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close Story
QUICKREADS

Less time to read?

Try Quickreads

  • Representational image.

    Tanzania installs internet on Mount Kilimanjaro for Insta-ascents

    Tanzania has installed high-speed internet services on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, allowing anyone with a smartphone to tweet, Instagram or WhatsApp their ascent up Africa's highest mountain. State-owned Tanzania Telecommunications Corporation set up the broadband network on Tuesday at an altitude of 3,720 metres (12,200 feet), with Information Minister Nape Nnauye calling the event historic. He said the summit of the 5,895-metre (19,300-foot) mountain would have internet connectivity by the end of the year.

  • Hadi Matar, 24, center, arrives for an arraignment in the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, N.Y., Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Matar, is accused of carrying out a stabbing attack against “Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie.

    Rushdie's attacker says murder bid carried out without any contact with Iran

    The 24-year-old man charged with the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie has denied being in contact with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and said that he acted alone when he stabbed the Mumbai-born author, whom he disliked for being "disingenuous". In a video interview to the New York Post from Chautauqua County Jail, Matar said that “When I heard he survived, I was surprised, I guess.”

  • A Taiwan Coast Guard ship travels past the coast of China, in the waters off Nangan island of Matsu archipelago in Taiwan. (REUTERS)

    Canadian parliamentary committee plans Taiwan visit amid tensions

    A large Canadian parliamentary committee delegation is planning to visit the Chinese-claimed island of Taiwan in October, local media reported on Wednesday, a development that could further worsen relations between Ottawa and Beijing. Eight members of Canada's House of Commons standing committee on international trade are expected to travel to Taiwan, including many who are members of the Canada-Taiwan Friendship Group in the parliament, Canadian media reported.

  • U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and Taiwanese President President Tsai Ing-wen wave during a meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, Aug. 3, 2022. 

    US announces trade talks with Taiwan, island drills military

    The U.S. government on Thursday announced trade talks with Taiwan in a sign of support for the island democracy China claims as its own territory, prompting a warning by Beijing that it will take action if necessary to “safeguard its sovereignty.” The announcement comes after Beijing fired missiles into the sea to intimidate Taiwan after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this month became the highest-ranking American official to visit the island in 25 years.

  • A person walks in front of new homes under construction in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of Punjabi speakers increased by 49% to 520,000. (REUTERS)

    Punjabi fourth-most widely spoken language in Canadian homes

    Punjabi is the fourth-most widely spoken language spoken at home in Canada while the number of those using other Indian tongues has risen steeply, according to new data released on Wednesday. Canada's two official languages, English and French, remain the two spoken most predominantly at home, followed by Mandarin and Punjabi, according to details issued on Wednesday by Statistics Canada (StatCan), the country's data agency. Other Indian languages are also flourishing in Canada.

SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, August 18, 2022
Start 15 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now