Lucknow: Bairiya Khas village of Barhalganj block in Gorakhpur district wore a deserted look on Thursday evening. There was a complete shutdown of local markets and a decision was taken by villagers to strictly stay indoors, not even let children step out of their homes. Fear has gripped the village amid rising COVID-19 cases in rural areas.
The reason: At least 12 people died in 10 days — from April 28 to May 7 — in the village, which has a population of about 9,700. Although district health officials maintain that the deaths were due to “natural causes”, villagers are anxious because RT-PCR tests were not done on any of the deceased to confirm official claims.
ARE CM’S CLAIMS ON CORONA DECLINE TRUE?
While the Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government is claiming that active COVID-19 cases and deaths across the state are declining, as per reports at least 45 people have lost their lives within 15 days in three villages of Gorakhpur region — the Chief Minister's home turf -- while 40 people died in the past two weeks in an adjoining Deoria districts. The panchayats have now decided to seal the villages to prevent COVID spread.
Luhsi, Bairiya Khas and Brahmpur — all villages in Gorakhpur —each lost at least 15 people to suspected COVID around the same period. None of these villages had witnessed a single COVID death during the first wave last year, some residents told NewsClick. But the second wave seems to be playing havoc in rural Uttar Pradesh although the state government seems to have no figures, especially deaths in rural areas.
Satendra Singh (name changed), a medical officer posted at a Community Health Centre (CHC) in Barhalganj block, who visited Bairiya Khas village with his team to investigate the reason behind the deaths, told NewsClick: "The death toll is much higher than what is being reported in the media. In Gorakhpur region’s Bairiya Khas, 13 casualties took place in a single day a few days ago. In most of these cases, the patients had fever, cold, cough and breathlessness. In the absence of speedy testing and tracing of positive cases in rural areas, most of the villagers prefer to consult quacks operating in the village instead of going to government or private hospitals.”
Exposing the pathetic condition of CHCs and Primary Health Centres (PHCs) in Gorakhpur region and the adjoining district, Singh said: "There are 19 blocks in the Gorakhpur region and each block has CHCs and two PHCs, as also 7-8 additional public health centres. All the work has been left on the ward boy and pharmacist's shoulders. One CHC is supposed to consist of 30 beds but you will hardly find 4-5 beds. There is guideline of one surgeon, one anaesthetist, two OT technicians, one medicine doctor and at least one gynaecologist, but all this is on paper." He said the Rapid Response Teams have not been visiting most rural areas and hence patient deaths are not being prevented.
Meanwhile, residents are in panic due to so many deaths in the same village. Bairiya Khas village head Barrister Yadav said he had informed the district magistrate about these cases on the mobile phone and demanded that large-scale COVID tests be conducted in the village. “But not a single doctor or paramedic has arrived so far,” he said, adding that “every house in the village has at least one patient with COVID-like symptoms.”
Newsclick spoke to the families of four deceased persons in Deoria district who confirmed the presence of symptoms, such as fever, cough, cold, headache and breathlessness. However, district health officials maintain that the deaths were due to “natural causes”.
In Andila village of Bhagalpur block in Deoria district, there is an eerie silence as villagers mourn the untimely deaths. There have been 20 deaths within 15 days in the village, while Kodar Baida village of Rudrapur tehsil has recorded 12 deaths in a week, as per local sources. Besides, at least eight persons have died in Paina, which hardly 7 km from Andila.
Villagers say the deceased comprise both elderly and young. The cause of these deaths is said to be cold, fever, cough, shortness of breath. However, COVID-19 was not confirmed, but then it can be ruled out only after tests.
"I am being informed about a death almost every day in the village. This started three weeks ago when a large number of people started complaining of fever, cold, cough and breathlessness. For a couple of days, we thought it was the usual sardi-khasi (cold and cough). Then, people started dying, and we panicked,” Shabbir Ahmed, brother of former village head of Andila, told NewsClick, adding that there is no way to know whether these deaths were due to COVID-19 because no one was tested.
Ahmed believes that a large number of villagers will be found COVID-19 positive if they go through RT-PCR tests. “The distressing sight of bodies and images of burials on the river bank are testimony to how the pandemic has ravaged the rural population in UP. People have been relying on quacks for basic health amenities. We are told that everything is under control but the reality in villages is way apart,” he claimed.
Meanwhile, as per the data collected by the district health department, the graph of corona infection in Deoria district is steadily increasing. As per official data, more than 400 people are testing COVID-19 positive every day. The number of total cases increased to 17,000 till Wednesday, of which 3,000 are active cases. Besides, 175 people have died so far in the district.
A villager in Paina said that his village reported at least 10 deaths in a week due to COVID-19-like symptoms and villagers were anxious that RT-PCR tests were not done on any of the deceased to confirm claims made by district authorities.
“Many people in my village died last week, developing fever and breathing issues. They did not test for COVID-19 due to unavailability of testing centres in our region,” Mohammad Arif, a human rights activist based in Paina told NewsClick, adding that the situation in several villages was quite similar.
“We never heard of so many deaths in a single day. Since no COVID-19 test was conducted, how can we rule out the possibility? Most of the people are staying indoors out of fear,” said a villager.
From Andila to Kodar Baida of Deoria to Bairiya Khas, Luhsi in Gorakhpur region, panic is palpable in rural areas. Villagers feel their grievances are not heard, unlike people in urban areas who have taken to social media to voice their woes.
Ironically, most of the COVID-19 wellness centres have been closed amid the crisis. As a result, due to lack of awareness, even those who have tested positive for COVID keep roaming around the village, further spreading the virus, say villagers. Also, despite repeated appeals, health department officials have not reached the village for testing.
A villager told NewsClick that people who complained of fever, cough and cold and died either at home or during treatment, could have been saved if proper arrangement for treatment was provided to them.
NewsClick spoke to Sonu Kumar Bhardwaj, a doctor based in Gorakhpur, who said that testing centres in Gorakhpur district were being stretched thin. “People are waiting three-four days to get reports due to rise in the number of cases. The results are delayed because of work overload and lack of hands. There is no solid roadmap by the government to tackle the deadly virus in rural areas. No staff, no beds, no oxygen, no medicine, no ambulance, the list goes on... basically people are left to die,” he said.
There is one doctor for one lakh people in the region, according to government data. There are only 70 government doctors in Gorakhpur district. Para medical staff is negligible. “Recently in many additional PHCs, including Mishraulia, Gajpur, Unwal, Chilwan, not a single doctor was on duty amid COVID crisis. The situation in CHCs is similar,” a doctor told NewsClick.
NewsClick made several calls to the Gorakhpur district magistrate but the PRO disconnected the call, saying that ‘sahab’ was busy with meetings. Calls to health officials who have been dealing with COVID cases were not answered.
Meanwhile, villagers living near Gorakhpur claimed that near Aami river, which is close to Bansgaon village, over 20-25 bodies were being brought daily for last rites, while Rapti river bank in Gorakhpur was seeing last rites of 200 bodies per day.