Arati Das, a housewife in her 30s, had to leave home with her family when No. 1 Baladmari Char, a riverine settlement on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Assam’s Goalpara district, was inundated four days ago in floods.
Das’s husband is a fisherman. The couple realised that a crowded relief camp could be harmful for their children, aged 10 and 14, in the times of the coronavirus pandemic. So they sent both to her sister’s home and came to the relief camp in New Goalpara High School in the town, some 150 km from state capital Guwahati.
“We saved ourselves from the flood, but at the camp we have to be careful to not get infected by the virus. We are asked to wash hands frequently and we are wearing masks,” Das said.
Leaving home – for days – every year during floods is not new for the family. Whqat is new this time is the fear of Covid-19.
By Tuesday, the floods had left 27 people dead, including three today, and over 25,000 were lodged in different relief camps across the state.
At the same time, Covid-19 cases have also increased — by Tuesday, the state reported 7,835 cases, of which 2,488 were active and 12 patients had died. Guwahati, which is going through a spike, is under a strict lockdown until July 12.
In Goalpara, 1,443 people were in 14 flood relief camps across the district on Tuesday.
Krishna Sarma, a teacher at the high school and in charge of the relief camp, has to ensure everyone follows norms of hygiene and physical distancing as prescribed by the government. For many years, Sarma has helped administratively run the school whenever it has been turned into a relief camp. “Things like masks and soaps are supplied by the government, but I have to make sure people follow the norms,” he said.
A Goalpara resident, he works for over 12 hours each day, looking after relief material at the camp, maintaining a detailed list of people lodged there, and advising people.
Earlier this year, the state government had issued a set of new guidelines to all districts to provide flood relief in the times of Covid. Lessening the number of inmates, re-calculating the space each person gets and providing masks and sanitisers were some of the revised measures that the state government advised in its fresh guidelines.
Officials said that once a camp reaches designated capacity, they are required to request people to shift to the next nearby camp, with transportation provided by the government.
Sarma said, “I am repeatedly warning people that they must be careful, because if they are not — and if there are more than the fixed number of people in a relief camp — then all might get infected even if one person is infected.” Nonetheless, the challenges for the administration and Health officials are immense.
The permitted capacity at the school — keeping Covid in mind — was 80, but on Tuesday at least 154 people were being accommodated.
“Despite our requests, people want to stay together with their families and relatives in the same camp. There is no way out. What will you do? There is an issue of humanity — we cannot just drag away people,” said Bipul Kumar Sarma, principal of the school.
He said although there was a larger designated relief camp in a nearby school people decided to be together here despite requests.
School teachers are assisted by Health Department officials, who undertake frequent rounds to see whether if anyone is ill.
One official, Abdul Awal, said, “We are focussing on the basics — telling them to wash hands, boil the water they drink and wear masks all the time.” His colleague J Das said the team screened the inmates and checked their body temperatures routinely to detect if anyone has symptoms of Covid.
Awal said, “Whenever there are floods, and people are placed in relief camps, health workers do such work. But this time added responsibility comes with the Covid outbreak.”
Difficulties in maintaining the exact number of inmates in relief camps as prescribed by the new norms exists in various other districts too.
A senior district official in Barpeta, where two people died on Tuesday and 824 were in relief camps, did not rule out such problems. He said on the condition of anonymity, “Despite that, we have to ensure the best we can. Even if there are more than permitted people, we have to ensure maximum possible physical distancing and hygiene norms are maintained.”
Sangser Ali, a resident of Lakhipur char near Bohri in Barpeta, said flood water has risen in many houses on the chars (sandbars). “Many people from low-lying riverine areas have moved out of home and are taking shelter in highlands. Many are in relief camps. People are having to save themselves both from water and Covid,” Ali said over the phone.
The official quoted above said that as on Tuesday the flood situation was under control in Barpeta and is expected to recede in the next few days.
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