Until May 13 — 54 days since Gujarat reported the first case of Covid-19 — Amreli district had managed to keep coronavirus at bay. However, a 67-year old woman tested positive in Amreli on May 13, followed by an 11-year old boy on May 17, after which the district declared its first containment zone. Both had come from Surat after the district opened its borders to bring home its migrants from Surat and Ahmedabad, the twin districts which are among the Covid-19 hotspots in the country.
From strict enforcement of lockdown to rigorous screening, several steps taken by the district administration have kept the contagion from spreading.
Among the 4,96,730 people under home quarantine in Gujarat, 1,61,636 are in Amreli – the highest for any district in the state.
To prevent the entry of outsiders through internal roads, before it opened its borders, the district had cut off around 2,000 rural roads and dirt tracks by digging trenches, piling up earth or laying fallen electricity poles to create blockages.
Those who came back to their native district say the lockdown is strict here and that people are also taking precautions out of fear. Kalpesh Savaliya, who returned home to Babra town on May 14 with his wife and two children says, “People here are afraid that they can contract the infection. They are also avoiding meeting people like us.”
There are 39 check posts set up at the district borders. Savaliya says he found screening process rigorous yet quick at Amreli border. “They checked our body temperature and travel documents. There was a queue but we continued our journey within half-an-hour. At Sardar Vidyalaya in Babra, the institutional quarantine facility, we again went through a thorough medical check-up. But entire process was over within 30 minutes and we were allowed to go home at around 11 pm with instructions to remain in home-quarantine for 14 days,” 45-year-old Savaliya who offers delivery services to e-commerce companies in Surat, says.
The district has population of around 16 lakh and except for a cement plant and Pipavav port, Amreli is largely an agrarian district. Being a water-scarce district, thousands have migrated to Surat and Ahmedabad to work in diamond polishing and embroidery industries.
District Collector Ayush Oak says that around 80,000 local migrants from Surat and Ahmedabad had returned when the Covid-19 lockdown began in March. This included 215 who had returned from overseas.
For stricter implementation of lockdown and to ensure that people coming from outside remain home-quarantined, a five-member team is in place at the village level, including the village sarpanch, talati etc with a flying squad at taluka level to supervise them.
For the village sarpanches workload has increased manifold. “We are the ones who actually know by face those coming back from Surat and Ahmedabad. Therefore, police and other officers of district administration are relying on us to ensure that those returning to the district remain in home-quarantine. We are also told to ensure that those in home-quarantine get daily essential items,” says Suresh Pathar, sarpanch of Chital village.
Pathar said that around 2,000 people from Surat and Ahmedabad have returned to their homes in Chital. “While there has not been any complaints of violation of home-quarantine requirements, if someone sends us photos or videos of people in street, it is my duty to file a police complaint,” he says.
Police and health teams have put neighbours on the job to keep a check on those under home-quarantine – a move that was followed by other districts later. A district-level control-room manned by various department staff takes field reports, complaints and also makes random calls to keep a watch on their function.
When the markets opened, Amreli decided to assign numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’ to its 4,000 shops which opened on alternate days. Later the odd-even formula was applied to most cities in the fourth phase of lockdown. To prevent crowding in markets, timings were staggered. Till May 3, vegetable sale was allowed between 7am-10 am and grocery between 10 am-2pm.
A WhatsApp number has been made available on which people can report violations, which is how the police arrested Chatur Patel, president of Amreli District Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for violating social distancing norms at his provision stores, on the first day when markets opened on May 4. .
Nearly 5,000 cases have been filed under the National Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act in the district.
Dipak Malani, a local BJP leader in Savarkundla of Amreli had filed a PIL in Gujarat High Court early this month, claiming blocking of rural roads was causing inconvenience to farmers, cattle-herders and people who needed medical aid. The court served a notice to the state government seeking response, but the roads remained blocked till May 17.
Traders say there is hardly any customer footfall these days. “There is panic among public. Therefore, people are not stepping out of their homes. While we have permission to keep shops open till 4 pm, virtual curfew-like situation prevails after 1 pm. I don’t see the situation easing at least for three-four months,” says Maulik Doshi, owner of watch show-room in Main Bazaar of Amreli town.
Collector Oak says, “At times, we have been criticised as being overly strict with respect to enforcement of lockdown. But we are a resource-scarce district where handling a disease outbreak can be difficult. So, from the very beginning, it was important to send a message that anybody who violates lockdown orders would be caught. We filed police cases against all those who violated orders. It is possible some people may have faced inconveniences.”
“But then, as medical professionals have been telling us, such pandemics occur once in 200 years and do cause some inconvenience to people,” the collector adds.
Amreli police have around 1,300 personnel and are assisted by around 1,000 home guards and GRD. “Role of people of Amreli has been very important during the lockdown. They are tipping us off about violations and we are taking action as provided in law,” says Nirlipt Rai, Superintendent of Police of Amreli.
Influx of local migrants
After the state government allowed inter-district movement of migrants, there were endless queues at the border check posts. “We saw 1.6 lakh people return to their homes in Amreli from Ahmedabad and Surat in 10 days beginning from May 7,” Oak says.
Entry was allowed only through check-posts at Kotda-Pitha, Chavand, Bhoringda and Datardi, and people had to go through a two-layered health screening, where they go into an institutional quarantine after the first level. At the quarantine facility in the 11 talukas, a detailed health checkup is conducted and only those clearing this level are allowed to go home for quarantine.
It was at one such surveillance at the Khedut Talim Kendra in Amreli town that the 67-year-old woman was found symptomatic and eventually turned out to be the first COVID-19 case in the district.
Oak adds that those who do not have toilets at their village homes are asked to isolate themselves on their farmlands.
Exodus of migrant workers
The district had sent back 16,000 of its migrant workforce of the total 26,000, from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar till last week. Most of them are agricultural labourers, the rest employed at the Pipavav port and in smaller industries.
“Farmers on whose land we used to work helped us get clearance from government for our journey. However, we paid Rs 1,200 each as fare instead of usual Rs 4,00. Nonetheless, it is a relief that we could reach home,” says Rakesh Bhabhar, a migrant worker from Dhar district of MP.
The health department which has a workforce of 2,000 is supplemented by around 500 teachers. They completed three rounds of door-to-door survey in the initial phase of lockdown.
The district administration has set up a 100-bed dedicated Covid-19 hospital in the civil hospital in Amreli district. Additionally, Radhika Hospital, a private 102-bed hospital in the town has also been identified as a Covid-19 hospital. Sub-district hospitals in Rajula and Savarkundla, with 50 and 60 beds each respectively, have been designated as Covid-19 health centres. A community health centre in Chital and Shantaba Gajera Girls Hostel in Gajera Sankul, an educational campus in Amreli, have been converted into Covid care centres. The quarantine facilities in talukas cumulatively have 6,000 beds.
Till Thursday 2,297 had been tested for Covid-19. “We are randomly testing vegetable vendors, flour-millers, medical store-owners and milkmen,” says a health officer of the district.
Oak says sampling and disease surveillance has been intense in Amreli. “Apart from the metro cities, Amreli has the highest testing rate in the state per one positive case. Effectively, we have tested 1,500 odd persons per one positive case,” adds the collector.
The Amreli civil hospital does not have a Covid-19 testing lab and therefore samples are sent to Bhavnagar.
The collector says now their focus is on managing the influx of local migrants and to ensure that those who come with infection don’t spread it in the district. “We must ensure that we identify those infected at the district border itself. If cases are revealed at later stage, our focus is to keep such cases isolated by strict compliance of home-quarantine requirements so that we can prevent cluster of infection,” the collector says.
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