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Friday, April 03, 2020

At Akhaura border post, a dawn to dusk vigil to spot coronavirus suspects

The border post at Akhaura is unique, the closest to any Indian state capital; these days about 300 travellers cross over daily

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala | Updated: March 7, 2020 11:50:22 am
coronavirus, coronavirus india, coronavirus akhuara, coronavirus border, indian express  Travellers at the Akhuara border undergo Coronavirus screening. (Express Photo by Debraj)

The Indo-Bangla border along Tripura is literally a line on the map. Except for a thin strip between barbed wire fences, there is nothing separating the two sides. But, for the past few weeks, the Indian side of the border has been witnessing a ritual of sorts. Around 6 am, a plastic table, a few chairs and a big umbrella are pulled up to set up a makeshift work station by the road. Clad in white aprons, N95 face-masks, sanitary gloves and armed with a handheld thermal scanner device, the team scanning for coronavirus patients crossing border are on duty for the next 12 hours.

This team of doctors, pharmacists and multi-purpose workers deployed by state government is not something India’s International Check Post (ICP) with Bangladesh at Akhaura is used to. But over the past few weeks, they have been an inseparable part of the operations here, quizzing every single passenger coming inside the Indian territory from Bangladesh every day.

The border post at Akhaura is unique, the closest to any Indian state capital. Immigration processing is done between 6 am and 6 pm by personnel of the Indian Border Security Force and Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB) jawans. However, the process does not end with immigration now. Every single passenger has to undergo a mandatory thermal scanner test, answer questions on their recent foreign visits, show relevant papers, produce face masks before gaining entry into India. All of them end up in front of Prabir Chandra Saha’s team.

They are looking for high temperature, symptoms of flu, respiratory problems or any visible signs that might be related to coronavirus infection. The team is authorised to deny anyone having these symptoms entry into India. But in two months they have not sent anyone back. But some 23 persons were found to have travelled to affected countries like China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Italy before. The help desk collects personal details from addresses to contact numbers and then adds the names to a list of suspected COVID-19 cases maintained centrally at Agartala. It is still a task, despite the number of transiting passengers falling to almost half of the regular 600 over the past few weeks.

Tripura shares a 856-km international boundary with Bangladesh of which 67 km is unfenced in separate patches at Dhalai and Sipahijala districts.

Every traveler requires to stand straight as the medical team holds the thermal scanner to their forehead. One press of a button and the temperature can be read on a small display in the device. The questions about travel history need another 10-15 seconds. The entire screening is over in a minute, if not less.

At Akhaura, the flow of passengers is quite erratic.

It’s not an easy life for the COVID-19 desk. Along with the sultry March sun, with the desk being right beside the narrow road, they are literally in the midst of dust and smoke from the trucks that cross over every now and then with everything from coal to fish. There is a sophisticated passenger terminal nearby for Indians travelling to Bangladesh, but that is not used for the screening as protocol doesn’t allow incoming visitors to access the facility.

Most of the travellers, meanwhile, are seeing any sort of medical screening for the first time. But then 75-year-old Dr Sudhir Chandra Debnath from Ramrail village of Bangladesh’s Brahmanbariya district knows what is happening. After waiting in the queue with his family, Dr Debnath crosses the zero line and moves to the medical help desk to answer the questions. A small Liberation War Honour badge glimmer on his chest, announcing that Dr Debnath was part of the 1971 Liberation War along with the Late Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Speaking to after his screening, Dr Debnath says every passenger should voluntarily inform authorities about any illness, even if not questioned.

Another visitor, Ranjit Debnath, says he was questioned about recent foreign trips. “They have tested us with a device and asked us to use our masks in public at all times. This is a secure initiative,” says the pharmacist. Md Jasimuddin of Foy’s Lake in Chittagong in unhappy that he did not not get any free advise with the screening. But Rocky De Abid from Dhaka was among those asked to wear face masks as precaution.

At Akhaura, the flow of passengers is quite erratic. Mornings are usually busy as numbers thin towards afternoon and pick up before dusk. The medical team wraps up their temporary workstation at 6 pm in the evening and communicates the daily data to the CMO. As per latest inputs, Tripura has screened over 15,000 people coming in from different locations including foreign nations.

A press statement issued by the Tripura government on Friday says no one in the state has been found infected. However, one person has been kept under special observation because he “came in touch with people who had recently been to Italy”.

Most of the travellers, meanwhile, are seeing any sort of medical screening for the first time.

Even though no one misses the thermal scanner at the border posts, the two border haats at Kamalasagar and Srinagar villages of Sepahijala and South Tripura districts have no such facility. People from both sides mingle freely here. That was the idea of these haats, conceptualised to promote cross-border cultural relations and informal trade through duty-free sale of local products among people living within a radius of 5 km. “The border haats are still open without checking. With so much precaution at the land custom stations, why are the border haats not checked?” an official asked.

The state also has unfenced border patches especially in rugged hilly terrains of Dhalai district and in parts of Sipahijala district, where land disputes have left areas unfenced till today. BSF personnel deployed along the Tripura-Bangla frontiers haven’t been given any special advise, but are using protective gears while on duty.

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