Updated: May 15, 2021 1:29:33 pm
A paucity of essential medicines like paracetamol; a limited number of pulse oximeters; “widespread” fever; vaccine hesitancy; vague guidelines on utilising the 15th Finance Commission payment for Covid-19 work; and even a scarcity of something as basic as drinking water.
As the pandemic’s second wave knocks on the door of rural India, Jharkhand’s villages have found themselves scrambling for key requirements.
The heads of panchayats from the state’s 24 districts raised these red flags in a series of virtual meetings with the government and among themselves. The Indian Express was a part of some of these meetings where these Mukhiyas sent out a grim warning: “Covid has reached the villages.”
Jharkhand has been hit hard by the pandemic. The state has a weekly positivity rate of around 12% and an active caseload of 48, 468.
In the last 44 days, it has seen a four-fold increase in Covid-19 deaths—around from 1,113 on March 31 this year to 4, 290 deaths on May 14.
But in several meetings, the Mukhiyas have said the state may be undercounting the number of Covid deaths in many villages. With facilities scarce, there isn’t much they can do to find out if those were Covid deaths.
During a virtual meeting with the Panchayati Raj Department and NGOs on May 12, Patel Kumar Mahato of Bokaro’s Murhulsudi Panchayat said there were no medicines in the Community Health Centre.
Mahato, who was himself ill, said: “There is no paracetamol in our CHC. Abhi ghar ghar bukhar ho gaya hai (Every household has fever).”
Mathura Razak of Palamu district’s Kulhaiya Panchayat said no quarantine arrangements had been made for migrants who tested positive.
“We need beds, oxygen, sanitization chemicals. We also need pulse oximeters with all Sahiyas (ASHAs) so that we can check people’s oxygen levels. But there is no communication from the government,” he said.
Lack of doctors is a major concern for the state, with some districts engaging quacks to fight vaccine hesitancy and administer basic medicines.
But compounding this are issues in the last-mile delivery of medicines and pulse oximeters.
The state Health Department has written several letters to Deputy Commissioners on the distribution of home isolation kits comprising masks and essential medicines. On April 18, then Health Secretary KK Soan issued another letter to all DCs asking them to give oximeters along with medicines.
This has remained only on paper, with only a handful of panchayats receiving them.
Official sources say it was also planned to provide oximeters to around 40,000 Sahiyas. This, too, is yet to see the light of day.
In Koderma district’s Pipradih panchayat, meanwhile, Mukhiya Dheeraj Kumar’s main worry is vaccine hesitancy. Kumar lost his 45-year-old cousin after he was administered the first dose. Since then, residents have turned on him. He said at one of the virtual meets: The government needs to push more for the vaccination. I have been heckled by the villagers after my cousin died, but I tell them that 10 people were administered the dose and only one person died. This is when I didn’t even tell my brother to get vaccinated. But they are not listening and they are now adamant on making me understand and it is taking a mental toll on me.” The panchayat has 7 villages with a population of more than 6,000.
A former lawyer, Kumar raised another issue. The unclear guidelines on how to spend the 15th Finance Commission money which has been credited into the panchayat’s account.
A May 5 letter by the Joint Secretary and Director of Panchayati Raj Department to Deputy Commissioners said gram panchayats can use the 10% of “untied funds” under the 15th Finance Commission for the management of Covid-19 as well as for maintaining quarantine centres for migrant labourers.
But several Mukhiyas said the letter does not provide clarity on how to use those funds.
Kumar told The Indian Express: “I want to buy oximeters, but I don’t know which vendor to buy from and how much I can spend. Later the government will start an audit and accuse me of siphoning funds. Till the time this issue clears out, the peak caseload will decrease. We need funds right now.”
Mukhiya Vinod Singh of Hazaribagh district’s Chouparan panchayat—which comprises 15 villages—said in another meeting: “We are getting our own funds from various people. This is some money in the Panchayat account from 15th Finance Commission, but we have no idea how to spend it.”
Singh also raised the ‘pathetic situation’ in the Chouparan CHC. “There is one doctor for 26 panchayats, and people who give injections to patients are someone who were sent to ‘learn how to vaccinate’ at the CHC. We are buying medicines on our own, we are going to different districts to get other supplies and we are preparing food to feed 50 frontline workers including in the hospital,” he said.
Several other panchayats such as Bada Pakhtaria of Sundarpahari block in Godda and Purnapani panchayat of Baharagora block in East Singhbhum district have said drinking water remains a scarcity in the peak pandemic.
Additional Chief Secretary (Health) Arun Singh said: “We will get the first tranche of pulse oximeters shortly and we will deliver it to them. On medicines, we have given money to the districts which need to supply it to them.”
But issues remain.
Many people have been diagnosed with typhoid in absence of test reports. As of May 14, the state had more than 13,000 Covid-19 test backlogs. In various meetings held with the BDOs and MLAs, Mukhiya of Poreyahat panchayat in Godda District, Anupam Kumar, raised the issue.In one such meeting, he said: “There is a backlog of 10 days on Covid-19 report. The government says that the swabs go to Dhanbad and take time, but this is resulting in panic, chaos and deaths and it has reached various villages. Recently, a 30-year-old man was falsely diagnosed with Typhoid when his Covid-19 result was pending, but suddenly his oxygen dropped and we could not even admit him in the hospital. He died.”
He later told The Indian Express that the meetings had elicited no action.
Chouparan panchayat’s Singh says: “One day we needed an ambulance for a patient and it arrived 8 hours late. The patient died. Covid or no Covid, there are people dying and the cremation grounds are always burning.”
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