Updated: May 16, 2021 7:30:43 am
“Containment Zone,” says the scrawl in Hindi on a piece of white cloth hanging above the makeshift barrier made of bamboo poles. This is the entry to Bade Anjani village in Gaurela-Pendra-Marwahi district, which was carved out of Bilaspur and came into existence on February 10, 2020, just a month before Chhattisgarh recorded its first Covid case.
Today, the Covid graph of Gaurela-Pendra-Marwahi, or GPM, with a population of about 3,36,000, reflects the trajectory of the infection’s rural spread in the state — a swell last November following a bypoll, a lull early this year, and now a devastating second wave.
Officials and doctors say the challenge is particularly daunting in this fledgling district, which is struggling with vacancies in key posts including Chief Medical Health Officer, gaps in infrastructure and mistrust on the ground over the vaccination drive.
In Bade Anjani village, which is one of 15 in the district where more than 50 cases were reported last month, 69 people tested positive last week after attending a marriage function. The village is just 10 km from Gaurela, the district headquarters.
Official records show that until August 31, 2020, the district had recorded only 47 cases with no death. But then, the count started rising, crossing 250 in September and 450 in October leading upto the November 3 Assembly bypoll in Marwahi constituency necessitated by the death of former CM Ajit Jogi. By November 30, the number of cases had reached 776 with eight deaths.
Following the trend across the country, the count started dipping from January 2021, with only 12 active cases on March 1. From January to April, the number of deaths remained at 10, with the caseload at 1,656 on April 1.
But by then, the mood had changed on the ground. “Over the last year, several family members returned to villages and have since been at home. How long will marriages be postponed? Life has to go on. We understand the dangers and wear masks. But we can’t stop important functions forever,” says Karmin Bai (45), who recently attended her grand nephew’s wedding in Sacharatola village.
“The biggest hurdle is getting the villagers to trust grassroot workers. The district authorities filed a few FIRs after ANM and Asha workers, who were engaged in door to door surveillance, were assaulted by villagers. They are misinformed about Covid. Several believe that we are testing them for personal monetary incentives, and hide crucial details,” says a health worker from Marwahi block, speaking on condition of anonymity.
District officials believe the hesitancy stems from the extended lockdown of last year. “In 2020, walls were painted with slogans and information regarding Covid. But after the cases dipped, they were painted over, which was reflected in the mindset of villagers. In villages like Bade Anjani, people have been violating lockdown norms and organising festivities and marriages,” says the health worker.
By May 1, the district had recorded 6,144 cases with 33 deaths in all, and an active caseload of 2,340. On May 14, it had 9,916 cases in all, with 3,023 active cases, and 85 deaths.
“We are trying to increase awareness in the rural areas, and villagers have been coming forward to test on their own. With strict implementation of lockdown norms and Covid-appropriate behaviour, we will be able to bring down the numbers,” says District Collector Namrata Gandhi.
Outside the villages, the challenge is of infrastructure and staff at healthcare facilities. On records, the district has two ventilator beds but they are yet to be made fully functional.
“We had ordered the NIV (Non Invasive Ventilation) and other machines needed, which are being delivered. There is also a shortage of oxygen cylinders to operate the ventilators. We need 150 oxygen cylinders and have only 50. We have placed orders for the rest,” says Gandhi.
Until then, district officials say, GPM is dependent on Bilaspur for ventilators and intensive care — and both Bilaspur and Korba for RT-PCR testing. With around 400 Covid beds, including 82 with oxygen, in the two main government facilities, serious cases are taken to either Bilaspur, 104 km away, or Raipur, more than 200 km away, “as quickly as possible”, they say.
Vacancies at healthcare facilities present another hurdle, say health workers and officials.
For the 42 posts of medical specialists, there are only six, and for 129 nursing staff positions, there are only 74. The post of Chief Medical Health Officer is vacant, too, with the senior Block Medical Officer holding charge.
During the pandemic, 37 staff nurses and 14 lab technicians were hired on contract. “We hired contractual staff since the due process of permanent hiring is taking time. We also have a shortage of applicants, as we are a newly formed, rural district,” says Gandhi.
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