Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently shared his concern over the acceleration of Covid infection in rural India. The situation is acute because the rural healthcare infrastructure is generally pathetic and certainly in no shape to handle the pandemic at a time when its urban counterpart is still struggling to arrange oxygen and ICU beds to save lives. A hint of the scale of the rural crisis came from the bodies floating on the Ganga and those buried in shallow pits on the river’s banks. Some estimates suggest at least 2,000 such bodies have been spotted along Uttar Pradesh’s riverine districts. Whether or not those deaths are Covid-related and have been accounted for is a mystery. Just to understand the magnitude of the challenge, as many as 70% of India lives in villages. The State Bank of India’s economy bulletin Ecowrap on May 7 said the share of rural districts in new cases increased to 45.5% in April and 48.5% in May as compared to 36.8% in March.
The first wave created a false sense of security as home-bound migrants didn’t seem to carry the infection, and the Bihar election in October-November was Covid-free though all norms were flouted. That added to the general overconfidence in rural India on their robust immunity. Lakhs of Punjab farmers had massed at Delhi’s gates protesting against the farm reform laws during the whole of winter, nonchalantly ignoring advisories that they could get infected. The virus struck as winter waned and has now ravaged the whole of Punjab.
Many villagers seem to be living in denial even if they develop symptoms, indicating an awareness deficit. To the urban mind, such awareness drives on the phone may be ‘irritating’, as the Delhi High Court sniped in a different context, but they ought to be pursued in the local dialect relentlessly in rural areas. Training and equipping panchayati raj institutions with materials like pulse oximeter and digital thermometer, collating basic data from each village daily, and arranging for isolation and doctor consultation for positive cases, is the bare minimum the state could do to protect rural lives. Prodding villagers to shed vaccine hesitancy is paramount if we are to successfully contain the virus.