Proactive Odisha

Print edition : April 10, 2020

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and other political leaders washing their hands at the State Assembly building in view of the coronavirus alert, in Bhubaneswar on March 13. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Subroto Bagchi, government spokesperson for COVID-19, addressing a press conference in Bhubaneswar on March 20. Photo: Subroto Bagchi

The Odisha government declares coranavirus infection a disaster and prepares its administration to manage and limit the transmission of the disease effectively.

With its vast experience in successfully handling natural disasters, the Odisha government is tackling the challenge posed by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, with utmost caution. It is allowing its cohesive and well-oiled machinery to work without any fuss.

Even before anyone had tested positive for coronavirus infection, the State Cabinet on March 12 declared COVID-19 a “disaster” under the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Keeping the virus’ potential threat to communities in mind, the government approved the COVID-19 Odisha Regulations, 2020, and earmarked Rs.200 crore to augment the Public Health Response Fund.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s statement in the State Assembly provided the desired seriousness to the administration as well as the general public.

“Only a few times in the history of mankind have human beings as a race faced challenges beyond their comprehension. With advances in science, this phenomenon has become a rarity,” he said, by way of outlining the gigantic challenge.

“The World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. It has urged upon all member-states to take urgent and aggressive action to contain the spread of the pandemic. This extraordinary circumstance calls for an extraordinary response,” he added. The government was aware that the State’s public health infrastructure was not equipped to bear the burden of patients influx in the stage III (community transmission) spread of the virus, but its strength lay in management and limiting the transmission.

What came next was a well-thought-out strategy. The government constituted an Empowered Group of Ministers and a Committee of Secretaries under the chairmanship of the Chief Secretary to evaluate the emerging situation on a daily basis.

Recognising the fact that effective communication is vital in fighting a pandemic, the government appointed Subroto Bagchi, co-founder of the information technology consulting company Mindtree, as chief spokesperson on COVID-19.

Bagchi, who heads the Odisha Skill Development Authority, brought calmness in the dissemination system without letting the seriousness of the situation fizzle out. When people became apprehensive about staying quarantined for 14 days, he quoted the tradition associated with the presiding Hindu deity of Puri, Jagannath, to strike an emotional chord with the people.

“Every year, Lord Jagannath contracts cold, which is triggered by a virus, before the annual rath yatra [the chariot festival in June/July]. The Lord goes into quarantine for exactly 14 days, the same number of days prescribed for chicken pox and coronavirus cases as well. During the quarantine period, Lord Jagannath takes rest, gets the right kind of medication and takes the right kind of food. He comes back rejuvenated,” Bagchi said.

The State governments devised a specific response against the possible spread of the coronavirus from people returning from foreign travel. Declaring that people coming from abroad were the biggest source of infection, the government made it mandatory for such persons to register themselves within 24 hours of arrival with all contact details in the toll-free number 104 or the online portal https://covid19.odisha.gov.in. It incentivised the step by offering Rs.15,000 to each person registering their details.

Encouraging qurantine

The incentive was meant to encourage people to undergo 14 days of home quarantine. In less than a week’s time, 2,600 people, who had arrived from 104 countries, registered their travel and contact details. This helped the government in tracing the persons, sensitising them about the need for home isolation, and keeping a watch on their health. Foreign returnees were in home isolation in all the 30 districts of the State.

Those who volunteered to be in home quarantine include Gita Mehta, well-known writer and Patnaik’s sister; Dibyasingha Deb, Puri’s titular king; and Vineel Krishna, an Indian Administrative Service officer. This sent out the right kind of message.

The government threatened legal action against those who failed to register. “The registration is mandatory for the sake of public health safety. There is no choice. If anyone violates the direction, relevant portions of the CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure] and the IPC [Indian Penal Code] will be taken recourse to,” Chief Secretary Asit Tripathy said.

Of the 60-odd suspected persons who had undergone tests, a student who came from Italy tested positive for coronavirus infection in Bhubaneswar on March 15. The government immediately intervened to enforce physical distancing. It advised people to keep interactions to the most essential levels while taking all precautions.

All educational institutions were directed to stay closed until March 31 and examinations were postponed. The government cancelled non-essential official gatherings such as seminars, workshops and conferences. Cinema halls, swimming pools and gyms were ordered to be closed until March 31. It subsequently extended the period of all regulations in force until April 15, resulting in panic buying of essential items. The government then ordered all shops selling essential commodities and medicines to remain open. The State Election Commission has postponed the panchayat byelections, which were to be held in 20 districts on March 24.

The government asked all religious institutions and tourist spots to restrict the number of visitors. Within days, the flow of visitors, which used to be in lakhs at the Jagannath temple in Puri, the Sun temple at Konark and the Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar, came down to hundreds. Subsequently, the government stopped entry of devotees into the Jagannath temple and all temples, mosques and churches in the State.

The Puri district administration even used force to evacuate tourists from hotels and to prohibit entry of tourists into Konark and Puri. Religious events, where large congregations are common, and social functions, including marriages, were regulated.

In order to keep elderly people indoors, the government released food entitlement for three months under the National Food Security Act, including delivery at the doorstep without the requirement of biometric verification. The government also started the process of disbursing three months’ pension to the aged and persons with disabilities.

Although some of the steps taken by the government appeared to be small, they had a huge impact as far as social distancing is concerned. Vegetable markets were closed in the evening hours and the sale of subsidised cooked food at Aahaar centres was prolonged. These measures helped disperse the crowd.

Some district administrations even imposed Section 144 of the CrPC to stop mass gathering for religious and cultural events. However, the government came up with operational guidelines under COVID-19 Odisha Regulations, 2020, to smoothen the response.

While the government was taking measures to combat COVID-19, Bagchi and his team spread awareness among the public about the need to wash hands, cover the mouth with masks and keep the surroundings clean.

A three-day awareness programme was undertaken where local leaders were encouraged to urge villagers to take precautions against the spread of the coronavirus. Patnaik appealed to Odias to stop spitting paan, a widespread practice in the State.

The government has chalked out a six-month action plan. Keeping the possible burden on public health infrastructure in mind, it released Rs.5 lakh to every panchayat to convert panchayat buildings into isolation wards. At many blocks, schools were declared quarantine facilities. Three hotels in Bhubaneswar city were declared as pay-and-use quarantine facilities for tourists and guests.

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