Updated: May 11, 2021 7:34:35 am
Amongst the worrying aspects of the pandemic’s second wave is the speed at which the virus has spread to large swathes of the country’s rural areas. According to a report released last week by the State Bank of India, 48.5 per cent of the caseload burden is borne by the rural districts. The number of deaths has quadrupled compared to the peak of the first wave in September 2020. These disconcerting figures may not convey the scale of the tragedy unfolding in large parts of rural India. Reporting of Covid cases is low, for one, because of a dearth of testing facilities. The mismatch between official deaths and funerals, blurred lines between Covid funerals and Covid protocol funerals, singular lack of testing — all these have helped nervous state governments in dropping the analytical ball. Away from the media spotlight, and with few participants in social media, a crisis more serious than that suggested by official records seems to be playing out.
Last year, it took more than four months for the virus to leave its footprint in the villages. This seems to have fuelled misconceptions about the pandemic being a predominantly urban phenomenon. While several cities took steps, though inadequate, to augment medical facilities, rural centres continue to make do with under-staffed and under-equipped primary health centres. Rural government hospitals in the worst-hit state Maharashtra, for instance, have just two beds per 10,000 people — less than half the number recommended by the WHO. In Muzaffarnagar district, as an ongoing series of reports from UP in this paper revealed, nurses are substituting for doctors and ward attendants are doing the job of nurses. Reports from Odisha also point to a beleaguered health infrastructure overwhelmed by a community spread of the infection, especially in villages that share the border with Chhattisgarh. The country’s flagship healthcare insurance programme, Ayushman Bharat, means nothing when there aren’t enough beds or oxygen cylinders.
In most parts of the world, official records report only confirmed cases, not actual infections, because several people display mild or no symptoms. But in India, the matter has been compounded by widespread undercounting. Even in pre-Covid times, the disease burden was not accurately counted, and deaths went under-reported in villages because a large number of people died at home without medical attention. But dealing with this notoriously infectious virus requires every detail to be mapped and demands that state governments step up their data collection methods and be scrupulous with facts. Not only will a true picture of the spread help in checking the pathogen’s surge, it will also build capacities and strengthen SOPs for the next wave. If every crisis is also an opportunity, this one is for governments to get pandemic surveillance right — the pulse polio success is why there is a formidable network of vaccinators in villages. Maharashtra, to some extent, and Kerala, have recognised the salience of robust data, and other states need to follow suit. Every government should realise and internalise that the only way to flatten and bend the Covid curve is to ensure that truth is never a Covid casualty, howsoever terrible it may make them look.
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