From Plate to Plough: Containing a rural Covid spread

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May 24, 2021 5:45 AM

We need to first convince people in rural Areas about vaccination, and simultaneously upgrade the health infrastructure, especially primary health centres

Governments, along with corporate leaders, NGOs, social and religious groups, swung into action arranging medical supplies, setting up temporary hospitals, etc. International aid also came in. India is still not out of woods, but situation has improved.

The sight of floating dead bodies in the Ganga has been one of the most painful and distressing scenes of the Covid-19 carnage. The second wave took almost everyone by surprise. While our political leaders were busy in state assembly elections, people were gasping for breath in hospitals due to shortage of oxygen. Black marketing of medical supplies made it worse. Many thought India is a failed state.

But within 2-3 weeks, things improved. Medical experts believe the peak is behind us. India woke up, though a little late. Governments, along with corporate leaders, NGOs, social and religious groups, swung into action arranging medical supplies, setting up temporary hospitals, etc. International aid also came in. India is still not out of woods, but situation has improved.

It is now time for some quick action to contain the spread of virus in villages. The PM has already warned about this. In rural areas, farmers are the key stakeholders. Punjab stands tall amongst farming community, having played a lead role in the Green Revolution. But, do we know that Punjab tops the list of Covid-19 death rates, followed by Uttarakhand, Goa, Delhi, Maharashtra, and so on? (see graphic).

What could be the reasons behind this? What we know about the virus for sure is that it loves crowds. Be it farmers’ agitations, religious congregations, or New Year partying in Goa, it spares none. It does not matter how rich or poor you are, or which religious/caste groups you belong to. If one is in a denial mode, it is likely to hit you even harder. Many agitating farmers in Punjab saying that corona is a conspiracy against their agitation worries me most. Denial, whether due to deficit of trust or lack of education, will make it harder to control the virus. It will be compounded by weak health infrastructure in rural areas, leading to third or even fourth wave. Remember, no one is safe unless all of us are safe. The only solution seems to be vaccination.

How long will it take to vaccinate at least 100 crore Indians to develop herd immunity? We don’t have clear cut answers, but Dr VK Paul of NITI tells us that between August and December 2021, there would be about 200 crore doses of vaccines available for Indians. The government is making all out efforts to ramp up vaccine production, largely through the private sector. What this implies is that we have a lot to do between now and December-end, and may be even beyond that. We can’t keep the country under lockdown conditions for long as it hits livelihoods, especially of the poorer sections. Our response has to be a calibrated one balancing lives and livelihoods.

What steps can the government take now? Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, called a meeting on this issue with many think-tanks last week. ICRIER’s senior team submitted its note suggesting creation of a war-room at the central level with representatives from relevant states, medical experts, army logistics, corporate sector, civil society, etc. Amitabh Kant of NITI told us that such a war-room already exists within NITI. If so, it would be good if the supreme leader of the war-room addresses the nation at least twice a week for better communication with its citizens telling how well prepared the government is. Kant also told us that his team is working with more than one lakh NGOs, corporate bodies, and coordinating international aid, for smooth and timely flow of medical supplies. That’s a huge and commendable effort. But, it may still be falling short of the needs, especially in rural areas.

We need to first convince rural people about vaccination, and simultaneously upgrade the health infrastructure, especially Primary Health Centres (PHCs). Panchayats, NGOs, and corporate leaders can be roped in this gigantic task. Stocking vaccines in rural areas will require controlled temperatures, and power supplies in PHCs remains an issue. Arunabha Ghosh of CEEW suggested that all PHCs need to be put on solar power on war-footing to create new jobs and give a fillip to health infrastructure with a green footprint. Yamini Aiyar of CPR suggested vaccination camps at panchayat level, and so on. MGNREGA workers are likely to be vulnerable due to group activity. They may be incentivised for vaccination, say, with free food for three months or so, and/or some cash rewards. But, if that does not work, some mandatory vaccination for group workers in villages and factories may be needed to save lives of everyone in the group. Big infrastructure push and supporting MSME in rural areas can go a long way in saving their lives and livelihoods.

The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture, ICRIER

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