As the second wave of COVID-19 continues to surge in India, alarms have been raised about the coronavirus hitting rural India. As per reports, in 13 out of 24 states where districts can be split into urban and rural, there were more cases in the villages and small towns than in bigger cities and in the remaining 11, COVID-19 cases were growing faster in rural areas. One amongst these states is Madhya Pradesh (MP), where the virus had reached the rural population a couple of weeks ago.
On Monday, after a span of 24 days, MP reported less than 10,000 new cases in a day with 9,715. Speaking to Newsclick from Rewa district, Ramjeet Singh, said: “In Bhind the hospitals are completely occupied and there is a severe crisis of medical oxygen. On paper, the government says that there is no dearth in the availability of beds, oxygen etc. However, in reality, nothing is available to us. COVID testing is being done in urban regions, not in the rural areas. In villages, close to 60% of the population is suffering from cold, cough and fever. Many of them are self-isolating and recovering on their own. In every village, somewhere around three to four people have succumbed to COVID-19.”
A student activist from Morena in MP, Rajveer Dhakad, said that testing has been stopped in their area. “Earlier, if someone tested positive, anyone who had been in touch with them would also be tested for COVID-19. Now they are just advised to isolate at home. Antigen tests are taking place but RT-PCR tests have been stopped. It is due to this that the number of reported cases is going down,” he added.
The state of MP has been facing an acute shortage of medical oxygen since April. On April 17, 12 COVID-19 patients died due to the alleged shortage of oxygen in Shahdol Medical Hospital. While the Dean of Shahdol Medical College, Dr. Milind Shiralkar, told the media that the deaths were due to a lack of medical oxygen, these claims were denied by medical education minister Vishwas Sarang and Shahdol Additional District Magistrate (ADM) Arpit Verma.
In a similar incident, Dhakad mentioned that six people had lost their lives a few days prior due to a lack of oxygen supply as a result of “negligence” in Morena.
The situation is no different in other regions of MP. From Bhopal, all-India joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), Badal Saroj, said, “The health system is in shambles. We are witnessing a lack of oxygen, ventilators, medicines and other medical facilities. Even medicines such as paracetamol, antacids, antibiotics and supplements for zinc phosphate, vitamin C and vitamin D are not being distributed by the government. Everything has been left to private hospitals.”
Both Saroj and Singh shared that no special team of doctors have been sent to villages to manage the situation. In most cases, Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers have been assigned for COVID-19 work. The state administration has also failed in undertaking awareness drives in rural India. A limited effort at awareness-generation is also being led by Anganwadi workers and panchayats.
Vaccination drives in rural MP have been lax and ineffective. The rural population has largely been unenthusiastic about, and suspicious of vaccines. “There is no awareness about vaccines in the villages and nobody is addressing this. The government is happy about the situation as there is a scarcity of vaccines available with them,” Singh added.
Ajay Tiwari, a student activist from Rewa, explained that even during the first drive, the number of people that were vaccinated in MP's villages was very low. “Out of 1,000 people, only about 30 people took their first shot of the vaccine. Out of these 30, only about four to five must have taken their second shot,” he said. This is also because very few vaccination centres have been established in rural MP. The ratio is so low that on an average there is one vaccination centre for more than 50 villages.
On April 22, it was reported that three villages in MP – Baigor, Pannali and Malgaon had recorded zero vaccination in two successive camps. The team which visited the village of Baigor discovered a quack treating patients in the villages from his house. The phenomena of quacks running shops is widespread in rural areas of MP.
Apart from inadequate resources, the crisis in rural Madhya Pradesh is aggravated by the lack of awareness and widespread misinformation amongst the rural population. As a result of the misinformation and panic on social media, people from villages across the state are fearful of going to hospitals to get diagnosed or treated.
Their trepidation around hospitals and vaccinations has been heightened in the last few weeks as there have been reports of the deaths of close to 15 people who had been vaccinated from different parts of MP. Singh said that two such cases have been reported from Sakarbat village, two from Sumeda village and three from Kullu village in Rewa. Similar deaths have also been reported from other regions of the state.
Badal Saroj explained that these deaths were a result of a lack of counselling by the staff administering vaccines to people at the centres. “Even when my wife and I had gone for our shots they did not counsel us about the after-effects of the vaccine and what we should do after taking the vaccine. They have also not distributed any medicines and supplements at the vaccination centres. As a result of this callousness, people are losing their lives,” Saroj added.
In the last few weeks, COVID-19 deaths have been reported due to mis-diagnosis by doctors. A number of cases have emerged where COVID-19 patients have been treated for typhoid. Jugal Rathore told Newsclick that three such cases have been reported from his village of Jaithari in Anuppur district.
Commenting on other factors aggravating people’s suffering, Saroj alleged: “Apart from the health system, which is evidently in tatters, this time even the ration system (Public Distribution System) has collapsed because of which 60%-70% of the people have not been receiving food grains. They have been distributing bajra (pearl millet) in the month of May. People avoid eating bajra during the summer season. Instead of providing people with additional food-grains (rice or wheat), the administration has been distributing bajra. In the last lockdown, they had at least distributed food grains. This time, they have simply abandoned people and left them to die.”
(The writer is an author and a Research Associate with Newsclick. The views are personal. She can be reached on Twitter @ShinzaniJain.)