Ground Report: Rural Uttar Pradesh grapples with Covid-19 amid abysmal medical facilities and Panchayat polls

The Invisible Enemy and its Anonymous Victims – The reality of rural India’s Covid experience

Anushka JagtianiUpdated: Wednesday, May 19, 2021, 05:15 PM IST
What Social Distancing? Voters line up at a polling booth for the Panchayat elections in Chandauli, UP |

Just 30 km from the high profile constituency of Varanasi is Chandauli Janpad, a mixed Urban and rural district in UP with a population of almost 22 lakh spread across 9 blocks.

A news report dated 16th May 2021, in a column called Haal Eh Gaon (condition of the village) of a local Hindi paper, claims that a village called Mahabalpur is becoming Chandauli district’s latest prey of the corona virus with 15 people having died of Covid symptoms in the last couple of weeks. However, Govt figures don’t show even a single corona infection in that gaon of 8,000.

This shocking official statistic is becoming problematic for the villagers who have no one to take stock of this tragedy, which even claimed one of the candidates standing for Village Pradhan. Allegedly the administration, which postponed polling from 26th April, took no further steps to prevent the spread of the disease and none of the 15 deaths have been documented as Covid fatalities.

No one from the health department has visited the village and conducted testing. Asha workers have been given the responsibility to distribute health kits – but that might not be adequate to stall the outbreak.

Polling takes its toll

Local reporter, such as Ganesh Prasad Gupta of Gyan Shikha Times, says the virus crept into Mahabalpur and other villages in Chandauli district amidst the campaign noise and bustle of the Panchayat polls, which culminated on 2nd May with counting. Covid protocol was largely neglected with people standing in long queues without any social distancing or proper masking. Reports allege that other villages have met the same fate as Mahabalpur.

Madhupur with a population of 9,000 has seen 19 continuous mortalities in the last month, 11 of which are confirmed Covid deaths. “So far the health department has slept while 11 people have died of Corona and 8 of other diseases. There are many villages in the district where the condition of the Primary Health Center is worse than bad”, says Ganesh Prasad.

Talashpur, a smaller village of 2,000 witnessed dozens of infections within 10 days of the Panchayat elections on 26th April. And within one week, around beginning May, a dozen people succumbed to fever and breathlessness. First people attributed their symptoms to the changing climate, but the quick succession of deaths of villagers ranging in age from 38 to 72, confirmed their worst fears. Only after the news was printed in the local tabloid did the administration start testing in Talashpur. The chatter of children and the buzz of elections has now been replaced by a deathly silence interspersed with cries of mourning in these villages.

Virtually non-existent health infrastructure

The Nation’s gaze has turned to the rural Covid scenario only a couple of weeks ago because the country was trying to grapple with the catastrophic situation in bigger cities, but in actuality things had started deteriorating in rural and semi rural areas since Holi. Residents of Chandauli say April was brutal, exposing a virtually non -existent health infrastructure. Being relatively unscathed in the first wave of Covid, the second one has been nothing short of a tidal wave in both rural and urban parts of the district. The situation has improved, at least in the more urban parts of Chandauli over the last few days, but not without devastating many families.

Losing precious time

Krishna Upadhayay, who is from Chandauli but is currently living in Mumbai teaching Yoga, says, “in the last month I lost 4 relatives and 40 other acquaintances ranging in age from 37 years to mid 60s. In the town people were hospitalized. Most of the people I know who died are from the village. They died at home, so it wasn’t counted as Covid.”

When the situation started deteriorating in beginning April the only Govt medical facilities available for almost 22 lakh people were 10 beds dedicated to Covid in the Zilla hospital. An additional 30 for Covid suspected patients and 60 beds in Chakiya block. The private hospitals were only tier 1 or 2 facilities not equipped to take on the onslaught.

According to Ganesh Prasad, “initially all of Chandauli had only two ventilators but hospital workers didn’t have the knowhow to operate them. Now they have converted Heritage Hospital – a women’s facility - into a 100-bed Covid facility with ventilators, being run by the government and private players. There is a lot of underreporting also. The official figures are a little more than 250 mortalities but it’s probably in excess of 500”.

Proper planning could have saved people

Satish Kumar Singh, a staff member of the Pandit Kamla Pati Tripathi Zilla Hospital at the Mukhyalay confirms these reports, “between the months of Phalgun and Chaitra the weather changes and people get fever. Doctors thought it was because of summer arriving. Nobody believed that such a thing could happen. If we had some preplanning we could have saved some people. We would see between 70 and 80 serious patients a day at the peak and about 150 outpatients. We had only oxygen. We didn’t have ventilator facilities. If they needed one they would be sent to Banaras, which was already overburdened.”

Satish Kumar says his family got infected but he was spared thanks to the Govt vaccination program. “I Don’ t think that the private hospitals have done as good a job as the govt hospitals in this district”.

He witnessed painful events in those days with a feeling of helplessness. “Around 9th April, a man from the village got his wife to the hospital. Her Spo2 had fallen to 50 – 60. We gave her O2 but she died during the night.

Her husband, who was at home, came some nights later with fever and breathlessness and also died before the morning. Their children are 4 and 6 years. The wife was 33 and the man around 40. If people like this got a ventilator we might have saved them. We could have saved at least 5 out of every 100 people who died”, says Satish Kumar.

23-year-old Kunvar Sidhartha Raj lost his father, a Govt schoolteacher, in the line of duty. Despite his family’s apprehensions, 55-year-old Rajkumar Ji from Basni Village, had to attend the mandatory training sessions for teachers on Panchayat poll duty, which were conducted beginning April. He fell ill on the 8th of April and died on the 11th night. “We couldn’t even admit him to hospital because they said they had no oxygen”, says Kunvar. Rajkumar Ji leaves behind 4 children, the youngest son being 9. So far there is no order for compensation says Kunvar.

Ready for third wave, says CM

In his latest press briefing in Noida, UP CM, Yogi Adityanath said that the Pandemic situation in the State is not out of control and that they are even prepared for a 3rd wave of Covid. However by all accounts UP is not yet finished with the second wave. Things may be coming under control in district headquarters but villages are struggling without adequate medical facilities. That the health infrastructure has now been ramped up is however welcome news.

More funds sent for Covid medical facilities

The MP of Chandauli district, Dr Mahendra Nath Pande is a revered Minister in the present Govt holding the portfolio for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship. He was readily available for comment from Delhi, and did acknowledge that it’s been a tsunami like situation. Dr Pande said, “22 ventilators have now been provided. Oxygen beds are available in 4 places. The local MLAs have given Rs 80 lakh from their funds. Local construction projects that had started in village areas have been temporarily stopped and the money diverted for Covid and Rs 40 lakh not yet spent from the MP fund is also being used. 6 mini O2 plants have been set up and 60 O2 beds will have 24-hour supply. We are in discussions to set up 200 more O2 beds. The CMO has allotted Rs 2.5 crore to the constituency. Medical kits with Doxycyclin, vitamin C, etc are being distributed free of cost to villagers by Asha workers”. This has however only been made available as of early May after the dreadful toll of April.

Not happy with conditions

Despite the relief that these additional facilities will bring, the more outspoken citizens of Chandauli are resentful of the administration’s blatant disregard for their health. Shamshad Ansari, a local stringer with Amar Ujjala Hindi paper says, “there is a community health center in Niamtabad block of Chandauli district, which was built a decade ago during the BSP regime, but it is still not operational. This dilapidated building is now functioning as a temporary base for ambulance drivers and animals, at a time when it could have helped save lives”.

Where’s the Trauma Center?

He adds, “if certain facilities like a Trauma Center, inaugurated by the MP in 2018 on Mughalsarai bypass in Chandauli district, would have been constructed in due time, it would have been useful to save the lives of all Covid victims, but it was just an election gimmick. Despite the arrival of 2021, not a single brick has been laid apart from the boundary”. Commenting on this the MP said that the trauma center will be ready within this year.

Infra-projects get shot in the arm

In stark contrast to this is the construction of substantial road infrastructure projects that run through Chandauli, which is also part of the Golden Quadrilateral. These include parts of a 6 lane National Highway (NH2) and 27 km of a 4-lane ring road connecting the districts of Purvanchal. This road will be built by March 2022 at a cost of Rs 175 crore. These projects are imperative for economic progress but so is a robust health care system say residents.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had declared that India will win the war against this Adrishya Dushman – or invisible enemy. In order for that to happen not only do health services have to be upgraded at grass root levels but also the population in these smaller towns have to follow Covid appropriate behavior and get over their vaccine hesitancy.

“Already Chandauli market which is open for a few hours daily is getting crowded with little regard for social distancing”, says Ganesh Prasad.

Chandauli represents the reality of the unfolding tragedy which has struck 1000s of such semi rural Zillas across the country. A postmortem needs to be done and compensation given where due or else India’s rural aspirational folk will remain the nameless, faceless, unaccounted for casualties of Corona.

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