On the right track

The State has been able to keep a lid on the coronavirus infection through a strategy involving setting up of response teams, enforcing containment measures, ramping up testing, and using effectively the experience gained in handling natural disasters.

Published : Apr 25, 2020 07:00 IST

Villagers walk home with firewood on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar on April 13.

Villagers walk home with firewood on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar on April 13.

One month after Odisha detected its first COVID-19 positive case, 21 of the 30 districts in the State remained safe from the infection. Of the 60 positive cases as on April 15, 46 belonged to Bhubaneswar. The other eight districts recorded one or two cases each, indicating that the spread of the virus was largely contained.

Before the Central government imposed the lockdown on March 24, migrant labourers and travellers from more than 100 countries, and close to 90,000 people from within the country had come to the State.

Odisha’s fabulous report card on its fight against COVID-19 did not come easily. It was the well-thought out strategy and untiring efforts of the administrative machinery that helped keep the virus at bay. Expressing his satisfaction over the containment efforts, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said in video message on April 14:

“I am pleased to see that the coronavirus statistics are levelling in the State and going down.” He thanked all those who were responsible for containing the spread of the pandemic in the State.

Ever since the pandemic alert was issued, the government lost no time in getting its acts together. From bringing in policy changes to constituting high-level COVID-19 response teams and from introducing technology to track COVID-19 suspects and providing solace to weaker sections, all measures were carried out at break-neck speed. Patnaik himself led from the front by staying in regular touch with the core team.

The first COVID-19 patient in the State was identified on March 15, when a student who returned from Italy tested positive. The State added 15 new cases on April 3, followed by 18 more cases on April 5. There was no double-digit jump thereafter. In fact, when the number of positive cases stood at 60, 18 patients had already recovered. Only one person had died.

Known for handling natural disasters of various degrees, Odisha treated the COVID-19 pandemic as nothing less than a disaster. It first ordered a lockdown in five districts and eight urban centres from March 22 to March 29, even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a national lockdown. The March 22 Janata Curfew announced by the Prime Minister was perfect for the State to enforce a total shutdown. Incidentally, it became the first State in the country to announce extension of the lockdown from April 15 to 30, before the Centre extended the period until May 3.

Initially, it was argued that detection of fewer cases in Odisha was due to the test size. Experts agreed this was the case. The testing of coronavirus infection began in Odisha on February 1 and for nearly two-and-a-half months the State was not able to test more than 500 samples a day.

The number of samples tested, however, jumped to 5,537 by April 15 following the introduction of COBAS-6800 at the Regional Medical Research Centre (RMRC), Bhubaneswar, and the opening of new testing facilities. The automatic testing facility helped increase the number of tests to a great extent.

In order to allay fears about low test size, the State government, in coordination with the Union Health Ministry, expanded the testing facility from the RMRC to the All India institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Bhubaneswar; SCB Medical College & Hospital, Cuttack; MKCG Medical College; Isphat General Hospital (IHG), Rourkela; and the Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar. More testing facilities were subsequently added. Samples were collected from urban areas as also from the gram panchayats.

The government set up exclusive COVID-19 hospitals in different parts of the State to cope with any eventuality. Patnaik directed the authorities to ensure at least one such hospital in all the 30 districts with a combined bed strength of 6,000.

To translate these plans into reality, the government partnered with private medical colleges and hospitals and arranged funds from corporate houses. A target was fixed to have as many as 36 hospitals dedicated to COVID cases across the State. 

By April 15, 21 hospitals became operational; another 15 are in the process of being readied. In all, 7,034 temporary medical centres/camps were completed in 6,798 gram panchayats with 1,63,528 beds.

Health Department officials claimed that the rate of spread of the virus was low in Odisha since only 60 cases were detected after testing 5,000-odd samples. The State was able to have an adequate stock of essential medicines, including antibiotics, analgesics and anti-inflammatory for five months of consumption. Besides, orders were placed to procure supplies for four more months.

A dedicated COVID-19 website was set up and a helpline number was opened. Call centres were set up with doctors answering calls and inquiring about the health condition of people at regular intervals. The two platforms were used brilliantly to track foreign returnees as well as to keep a tab on people developing symptoms of infection.

When the helpline No. 104 was flooded with thousands of calls every day, the government came up with idea of COVID-19 telemedicine helpline 14410. Within two days of the Chief Minister’s appeal, more than 300 doctors came forward to provide their services voluntarily to people showing flu-like symptoms.

On the containment front, the State government acted with an iron fist. After two locations—Surya Nagar and Bomikhal area of Bhubaneswar—emerged as coronavirus hotspots. Bhubaneswar, Cuttack and Bhadrak towns observed a 48-hour-long complete shutdown immediately.

After ascertaining that the sudden spike in positive cases was not the phase 3 or community transmission of the virus, but related to certain localities, the authorities lifted shutdown measures, while continuing with the lockdown. The government took no chances. Wherever any new case was detected, containment zones were declared with immediate effect. The administration did not at any point stop the tedious contact-tracing exercise.

The government handled the Tablighi Jamaat issue sensibly. It urged the community members to come forward and participate in the testing and they responded positively. Several persons were arrested for posting false messages on social media platforms, and Patnaik himself warned against communalising the pandemic.

Women’s participation was a bright spot in the well-synchronised administrative response. In fact, women virtually took the lead in fighting the pandemic in a big way. 

Three major institutions, where COVID-19 testing was carried out are headed by women scientists and doctors. Sanghamitra Pati heads the RMRC, Gitanjali Batmanabane, the AIIMS, and Jayashree Mohanty SCB Medical College Hospital. Interestingly, most of the technical persons deployed are women.2

Senior bureaucrats such as Shalini Pandit, Mission Director of National Health Mission; Anu Garg, State Labour Secretary; Yamini Sarangi, Managing Director of the Odisha State Medical Corporation Limited; and Sujata R. Karthikeyan, Director of Mission Shakti, played their part in the State’s response to the pandemic.

Besides, thousands of nurses, auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) and anganwadi and ASHA workers went from house to house to check the health of the people. Women self-help groups, apart from producing masks, were in the forefront of feeding the poor and destitute across the State.

As a nationwide debate ensued on lockdown versus economic impacts, Odisha adopted a pragmatic approach. In order to revive the economy during the extended lockdown period, the government allowed relaxations with regard to activities relating to agriculture, horticulture, fisheries, forestry, drinking water and e-commerce. 

The procurement of rabi crop was resumed and all cold storages and godowns were allowed to run. The government, however, said that all these activities would be carried out by maintaining physical distancing.

People welcomed it when e-commerce companies were allowed to restart home delivery of goods, restaurants were permitted to run home delivery services and dhabas were given permission to have takeaway facility.

The Special Relief Commissioner issued a notification excluding all agricultural activities, including harvesting and selling of rabi crops, from restrictive measures. 

Shops and establishments engaged in selling agricultural implements, cattle feed and fish feed and food processing and packaging facilities were allowed to remain open.

Activities relating to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Swachh Bharat, rural housing schemes, and fishing and floriculture were resumed. 

The relaxations brought huge relief to forest-dependent communities as March to May is the harvesting season in forests. The collection and marketing of non-timber forest produce also resumed. The Forest Department was also allowed to carry out plantation work and take up construction and repair of waterbodies.

The government engaged nine bureaucrats and four police officers, backed by support staff, to coordinate with other State governments to ensure that migrant workers from Odisha stranded in those States were provided food and shelter. Similarly, arrangements were made for the stay and food requirements of more 77,000 migrant workers from other States who were stranded in Odisha.

The State government also adopted measures to ensure that the poor and needy did not face hunger during the lockdown. While construction workers were provided Rs.1,500 each as financial assistance, the Department of Food Supplies & Consumer Welfare distributed Rs.1,000 each to 51,46,696 ration card holders as cash relief.

According to Food Supplies & Consumer Welfare Minister Ranendra Pratap Swain, over five lakh tonnes of foodgrains was distributed through fair price shops as advance ration for three months.

During the special drive for distribution of ration for April-June, the Department added 51,766 new beneficiaries belonging to 19,059 families under the State Food Security Scheme (SFSS) between March 21 and April 11. Inclusion of eligible beneficiaries was in progress, he said. 

In addition, 5 kg of rice and 1 kg dal were distributed free of cost to ration cardholders with Central assistance.

In order to prevent further spread of the virus in Bhubaneswar after 45 positive cases were reported by April 15, the State government assigned senior officials to be in overall charge of containment and prevention of the disease.

The city was divided into three zones and two senior bureaucrats each were assigned to these areas to oversee intensive sampling of primary and secondary contacts of COVID-19 patients, contact tracing, household survey by the surveillance team in the containment zone and supply of essential commodities for households under containment.

Odisha seems to be on the right track in its fight against the pandemic by marshalling its resources in a prudent manner. But the authorities are keeping their fingers crossed as migrant workers stranded in other States were getting impatient to return home. In such a chaotic situation, they have to think out-of-the-box to deal with reverse migration while checking the spread of the virus in the State.

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