As police were busy enforcing prohibitory orders in the city, a group of men sat outside a society’s entrance in the southern part of the city on Tuesday. The entrance was blocked by a makeshift gate of corrugated steel plates and a lock hung from a chain which held the doors of the gate together. A bottle of hand sanitiser also hung from a hook in the door just beside the lock even as a group of around 10 people stood guard at the entrance.
In a spacious building just opposite the society, a group of 10 talati mantris (clerks of revenue department) were busy sorting around 100 kits of toiletries brought in a jeep of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC).
At noon, a small group of men gathered inside a religious place in the area to offer prayer. But no sooner was the prayer over, the volunteers sitting outside the gate of the cordoned society asked them to disperse.
A while later, one of the volunteers drew attention of Rajesh Aal, sub-divisional magistrate of Gondal who was in the area, to a few young men hanging around in the area in violation of prohibitory orders. The SDM’s official car followed them with a siren.
At around 11:30am, a nurse and a lab technician from the nearby urban health centre run by the RMC came to the gate. A multipurpose health worker, who has been deputed in the area for the last four days to augment health services, requested Satyam Sherasiya, one of the talatis, to open the gates for the nurse and the lab technician as they had to go and collect blood sample of an elderly man who is diabetic.
At around 6 pm, the volunteers opened the gate to allow a chhakado (an auto-rickshaw-like goods carriage) loaded with ration kits, toiletry kits and packets of snacks to go inside. It made around five trips, delivering essentials to 97 families who have agreed to be “contained’ in their homes since Saturday. The volunteers had also made similar sorties in the morning to provide around 450 people milk and vegetables in the morning.
It is in this society that the 32-year-old man who tested positive for the novel coronavirus on March 19 lives. After he was confirmed to be the first positive case of the virus and a few of his family members also became symptomatic of COVID-19, RMC and district administration decided to lock down this society to ‘contain the cluster’ which could possibly have been infected by the virus.
“Officers and doctors came to us and told us that we should prohibit movement of people in this area. Therefore, we community leaders got together and held a meeting with residents of the society. We persuaded people that it was necessary to remain inside their respective home to prevent spread of the infection. We assured them that all their needs would be fulfilled if they cooperated. They agreed and therefore, three roads of the society were blocked by the corrugated steel plates and the temporary gate was fixed here,” says an elderly man who is the corporator from the area and represents the locality in the general board of the RMC.
“So far, people have been extremely cooperative. Community leaders are doing a great job. We ensure that community leaders continue to enjoy trust of those quarantined,” said Aal, whose original posting is Gondal but has been deputed as the nodal officer of this cluster containment exercise.
The SDM said that of the 97 families, only 22 were getting ration under the National Food Security Act, Antyodaya or other schemes for Below the Poverty Line (BPL) families. After the area was cordoned off, the remaining 75 families have been extended benefits of ration under the Annabrahma scheme of the state government for supplying ration.
“The containment period is due to expire on March 31. But we are prepared in case it has to be extended up to April 3. To ensure that all the families are well provided for, we are distributing ration of month of April today,” said Aal.
The discipline and restrain showed by 97 families represents a stark contrast to people outside.
Despite prohibitory orders, some opened their shops on Monday and police arrested around 25 people on Sunday and Monday. Police also detained 150 rickshaws on Monday. A man was booked by police on Sunday for allegedly stepping out of his home despite having been ordered to home-quarantine himself. He was later shifted to a quarantine facility set up by the government.
The families say, word of their community leaders is final for them. “We did not know there was something amiss till the time doctors and police came and took away 15 of our nighbours in ambulances on Thursday. The next evening, doctors and our community leaders came to us and explained to us what was the matter and how serious it was. Our community leaders told us that we must stay indoors to ensure that the infection does not spread while assuring us that we shall not face any difficulty during lockdown,” the 45-year-old man who is next-door neighbour of the 32-year-old businessman who tested positive for COVID-19 told The Indian Express over phone.
Another community leader said that people understood the gravity of the situation. “If these people do not exercise restrain, there is threat of the virus spreading further. That can give a bad name to entire locality,” said the leader.
Of the 450 people, 17 are above age of 60. Paramedical staff visits every household twice a day and checks on health of every person in the society. An ambulance remains available all the time. The nearby urban health centre remains open round the clock. Its medical officer visited the contained families on Monday.
All this while, not a single policeman was seen in the area. “People of the area told us that they were willing to cooperate in the cluster containment but did not want police around,” said Udit Agrawal, municipal commissioner of Rajkot.
The corporator said they wanted to set an example. “Given the situation, we understand police have to look after entire city. Therefore, we told them that we shall man the gate and would take some load off police’s shoulder,” he said.
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