With just seven active COVID-19 cases remaining in Himachal Pradesh, and no new case since April 22, the state government is taking its chances with a massive influx of people who were stranded in other states, deploying an army of grassroots workers to implement their home quarantine.
Within just five days — from April 26 till Friday morning — over 75,000 people entered the state in around 26,000 private vehicles, most of them heading to their homes in various parts of the state, according to data maintained at the inter-state barriers of eight police districts of the state. More than 40,000 people have entered through Kangra district alone, while about 20,000 and 10,500 entered through Una and Baddi respectively. The rest entered through Solan, Sirmaur, Chamba, Bilaspur and Shimla (Uttarakhand border).
On Friday, Chief Minister Jairam Thakur directed district officials to compile all data related to people who have returned home, and shift those who have returned from red zones of other states into quarantine centres. “A special campaign on the lines of the active case finding campaign will be launched to medically examine people entering from other states and keep them in home quarantine,” he said.
The people who have returned include students, workers, tourists, pilgrims, patients and others who were working/living in other states or visiting them when the lockdown began. Though data on the number of people from different states is yet to be compiled, police officials said most had come from neighbouring Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, J&K and Uttar Pradesh and some from as far as Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.
Thousands more continue to pour in each day. With a population of about 70 lakh, over one per cent of the state’s population now consists of people who have returned this week from all over North India. Only a handful of them were tested — less than 1,600 people so far this week — including those without travel history.
Surprising many with its decision to suddenly throw open its borders after maintaining keeping them strictly closed for more than a month, the state government has now pressed into service thousands of grassroots workers — ASHA workers, home guards, panchayat members and police personnel — to ensure these people observe a strict home quarantine of 28 days after their return.
“At least one lakh more people are expected to return. We are coordinating with other states and will be launching an app where all those who are stranded can apply,” said Principal Secretary Onkar Sharma, the nodal officer overseeing the influx.
For people who are still stranded without personal vehicles, the state government is in the process of arranging transport facilities to bring them back. A total of 105 students have so far been brought from Kota and all of them tested negative for the novel coronavirus.
The state government is also facilitating the return of people from other states stranded in Himachal. Hundreds of workers from J&K have already been transported till the Jammu border.
Many, including former chief minister Shanta Kumar, have expressed their concerns over this move. “Neighbouring Punjab made a mistake and 167 people tested positive there in a single day. A little carelessness can wipe out our entire success. It’s important to bring back all Himachalis stuck elsewhere but it’s even more important to bring them back with caution,” Kumar said.
Congress National Secretary Sudhir Sharma alleged that many of the people entering the state had not been screened for symptoms. “There is a shortage of thermodetectors. Many have entered without any kind of check, they did not even have passes. Who will keep a check on all these people 24*7? The state government has acted haphazardly,” he said, adding that people should be brought back in a phased manner.
We have a strong mechanism in place: Govt
“It has sure posed a risk but we have a strong community-level enforcement mechanism, as was seen in the active case finding campaign in which workers screened the state’s entire population within two weeks. The same health workers, plus members of the panchayati raj institutions and municipal bodies, are now engaged in keeping a daily check to ensure that no one jumps quarantine,” a senior government functionary said.
Health officials said ASHA workers have once again been asked to go door-to-door on a regular basis to check on those who have been quarantined and report in case of any symptoms.
‘Where are the masks, sanitisers’: ASHA worker
Some ASHA workers criticised the heavy workload and lack of masks and sanitisers. “I alone know what I have to go through every day, walking from door to door in hostile neighborhoods. Sometimes we get bitten by dogs and there’s no rabies injection available later. Sometimes, people threaten us when we approach them, saying things like ‘I will see you after all this is over’. And where are the supplies of masks and sanitisers? We are not getting any,” said an ASHA worker from Una district whose area had reported COVID-19 cases earlier this month.
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