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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Andaman administration moves to block COVID-19 from reaching indigenous tribals

While Andaman administration takes steps and vulnerable tribes are moved to deep forests, its own anthropologists and researchers ring alarm bells and say more needs to be done

Written by Ravik Bhattacharya | Kolkata | Updated: April 2, 2020 11:18:33 pm
Andaman coronavirus cases, coronavirus cases in Andaman, Andaman COVID-19 cases, COVID-19 cases Andaman, Andaman tribals, Andaman tribal groups, India news, Indian Express Till date 10 persons including a woman has been tested positive of coronavirus, nine of whom attended the congregation at the Nizamuddin mosque in Delhi, according to health officials. (File Photo)

At a time when the count of positive coronavirus cases in Port Blair has jumped to 10, the Union Territory administration has turned its focus to the welfare of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The administration stated that all possible precautions are being taken, including blocking all non-essential traffic on Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), moving tribal groups deep inside forest areas, and providing masks and sanitisers to field workers.

“There is no traffic on ATR. We have only one convoy which carries essential items. The PVTG has moved deep inside the forest where there is no possibility of contact with outside people. We have communicated to the tribal groups and made them understand the precautions they need to take. We have provided masks and gloves for our field staff and have asked them to inform regarding any illness among themselves or among the PVTGs. Field staff are advised if there is any kind of symptoms to immediately report to the administration. We have also placed a doctor in one of the PVTG settlement,” Sanjeev Mittal, secretary tribal welfare directorate, told The Indian Express over phone.

“The Islands are locked down and the tribals are located deep inside. So there is little chance of them being infected. But we are keeping a constant vigil,” Mittal said.

There is one-to-five-kilometre buffer zone around islands and off-shore, where indigenous tribals stay. Commercial or fishing activities are barred. But there are many instances of breach by fishermen and local settlers.

Andaman is home to five groups of PVTGs, including Sentinelese, Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Ongi and Shompens. This is besides the Nicobarese who are Scheduled Tribes. While Sentinelese have so far fiercely kept themselves out of bounds from outsiders, shooting arrows at anyone who gets near their island, others have been in touch with outsiders.

In November 2018, an American national, 27-year-old John Allen Chau, was killed by Sentinelese when he tried to illegally approach them. His body could not be recovered till date despite attempts.

However, the director of Andaman Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute (ANTRI) has shot off a letter to the administration recommending further stringent precautions.

“They (PVTGs) are most vulnerable to such diseases. After they came in touch with settlers, there were cases of jaundice outbreaks. I have already written a letter to the administration and asked them to take a number of precautions immediately. Firstly, I have asked them to use thermal guns to check on the groups including Jarawas. It involves no physical contact. Secondly, most field workers are daily wage earners. How can you expect daily wage field workers to properly handle such a grave situation? There should be permanent posts of the field workers,” said Vishvajit Pandya, director of ANTRI.

“I have also proposed that the PVTGs should be made aware of the disease in their own language and not by  someone in broken Hindi. Teach the groups like Jarawa and Ongisin in their own language. In that way members of the tribe be of any age will understand. One can make small pamphlets in their own language. They need to be sensitised. You see communication is vital and without explaining them through their native tongue there will be a gap,” said Pandya, who worked in the Islands since 1983 and was present when the Jarawas first made contact with the outside world in 1997.

Pandya also highlighted the fact that just moving them away from ATR will hardly serve the purpose since already the Jarawas are in touch with local settlers.

“Where do they get their jeans from? They have been in contact with local settlers, who gives them a kg of rice and in return take from them piles of jumbo crabs and venison. They are already in touch with local settlers and just stopping tourists and traffic in ATR will not curb their communication with the outer world. This is a matter of concern when such a disease is spreading,” said Pandya.

When asked about the recommendations made by the ANTRI director, Mittal said, “Thermal guns are to trace body temperatures. Our field staff are already been told to report of any ailments. And recruiting permanent staff is an administrative decision. A lockdown is on throughout the country and here too. We are ensuring it is stringent.”

A tribal development officer at Kadamtolla Anup Mondol said field officers held meetings with Jarawa tribes and showed them video clips of the disease and how social distancing works.

“We downloaded video clips from internet and showed them about the disease and its precautions. By early March, we tried to tell them that they should move back to Western Coast where they have huts too and away from ATR. They have moved there. There is a police outpost and we have made a team of five persons including an Auxiliary Nurse and Midwife, two staff and a driver of a motor boat. Every second day, the team visits their habitat and reports to us. We have asked the team not to get in touch and wait for them to come to us if they have an ailment. This is to minimise contact between Jarawas and outsiders. We have also given masks and sanitisers to our field workers,” said Mondal.

One of the senior researchers at ANTRI also wrote a letter to the Secretary, Tribal Welfare with specific recommendations in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak. Highlighting that the 10 positive cases in the islands are concentrated at Port Blair, senior researcher Manish Chandi proposed restrictions on movement from main land into the reserved tribal areas.

“Visitation to any tribal reserved regions by any authorised person should only take place when that person or group s tested and cleared of coronavirus. This requires stringent implementation. The Islands by its natural isolation provides its residents a shield of protection. Tribal welfare workers in touch or proximal communication with PVTGs and STs needs to be screened and protected from infection of coronavirus. Instead of using different field workers from time to time, one needs to have regular persons continue their duties after due testing until the spread of coronavirus is arrested,” said Manish Chandi, senior researcher and member of RAB, ANTRI, told The Indian Express.

“The indigenous communities should have least amount of disturbance to their normal mode of life ( by enforcement of the shield {block immigration/emigration}) to reduce dependence on external agencies, and continue their livelihood activities (Nicobarese and tribal Andaman islanders) so that life can continue with least disturbance after the contagion has been arrested. The mismanagement of the tribal communities after tsunami natural disaster should serve as an example not to emulate/repeat,” Chandi added.

Meanwhile, the Nicobarese have been asked to stay indoors until the lockdown period is over.

“We have been asked to stay indoors. We have stopped all our fishing and farming activities. We are abiding by what the government officials told us. Schools are closed and police are restricting movement,” said Moses Isreal, vice chairman of tribal council, Great and Little Nicobar Islands. The Nicobarese, whose numbers are around 9,000, rely on horticulture and fishing.

The Ongi and Great Andamanese tribes, with a population of around 100 and 45, respectively, are entirely dependent on the government. They live in shelters provided by the government in Little Andaman Island and Strait Island and have been asked remain inside shelters. While the Jarawas (574) live in Middle and South Andaman Islands and were told to move deep inside the jungle in West Coast area, the Shompens (around 200) live in Great Nicobar Island and are being monitored.

Only the Sentinelese, with a head count of around 100,  live in North Sentinel Island and are not in touch with outsiders.

Till date, 10 persons, including a woman, have tested positive of coronavirus, nine of whom attended the congregation at the Nizamuddin mosque in Delhi, according to health officials. The tenth person is the wife of one of those who visited Delhi. So far 1602 people on the Island have been put into isolation, which includes 1,501 who had travel history.

According to health officials, two groups from Andaman and Nicobar went to Vizag and from there to Delhi. From March 18 to March 24, they were in Delhi and attended a religious congregation at the Nizamuddin mosque. In one group, there were nine persons and in another group, two persons.

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