ODISHA

Sarpanchs as game changers

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Migrant labourers passing through Bhubaneswar city on their journey back home. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

Odisha manages to keep COVID-19 well under control because of the strong participation of panchayati raj institutions and the community at the grass-roots level under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

The fear of the spread of COVID-19 has led the people to join hands with the Naveen Patnaik government in tackling the pandemic. The government, too, realised very early that the fight could not be won without participation of grass-roots leadership. Given the spread of the outbreak, it was impossible for the government machinery to depute officials in every village.

With dedicated teams of officials by his side, the Chief Minister, in a first of its kind exercise, involved the panchayati raj institutions (PRI) in managing the situation as the number of positive cases kept increasing every day.

When Odia people returning to their villages from other States tested positive, Naveen Patnaik bestowed sarpanchs with the powers of a District Collector. Santilata Nayak, a woman sarpanch of Manitara gram panchayat under Buguda block in Ganjam district, even declared a shutdown in her panchayat to contain the spread of the virus. The sarpanchs of Madhupalli and Mandara in Polasara block in the same district followed suit. Since then the government has encouraged sarpanchs to take the lead in this fight. The Chief Minister said, “Sarpanchs have been working devotedly in the management of quarantine centres and other COVID care institutions.”

He has also accorded front-line warrior status to sarpanchs for their dedication in managing and strengthening Odisha’s fight against the pandemic at the grass-roots level and announced Rs.50 lakh compassionate assistance for family members if any sarpanch died in the pandemic.

Empowering sarpanchs is touted to be a game changer as far as handling the pandemic in rural Odisha is concerned. With limited financial power and limited administrative support at their disposal, sarpanchs are making a difference on the ground. “Community and PRI participation in COVID-19 management is the greatest achievement of Odisha,” said Chief Secretary Asit Tripathy.

More than two months into the pandemic, no major public unrest was reported at quarantine centres. The returning migrant workers were put up in quarantine centres managed by sarpanchs, who were heading a 10-member team comprising panchayat executive officer, gram rozgar sevak and prominent villagers. A nodal officer worked as a link between the sarpanch and the Block Development Officer.

Odisha had remained untouched by coronavirus until March 15 until a youth who had returned from abroad tested positive. The number of cases kept rising with more and more returnees joining the list of infected persons.

Naveen Patnaik, who had prepared the State machinery for the emerging crisis well in advance, kept adopting different strategies to contain the spread of the virus. He increased the number of temporary medical centres (TMCs) set up for quarantine of returnees at the panchayat level.

When thousands of Odia migrant workers started arriving from other States by trains, buses, boats, and other modes of transport and on foot, the number of TMCs in the 6,798 gram panchayats was increased to 15,642. The number of beds in these TMCs was increased from 3.3 lakh on May 5 to 6.82 lakh by May 18. Arrangements were also made for the stay of 32,524 persons in 415 quarantine centres in urban local bodies.

The Chief Minister directed the officials to pay special attention to the migration-prone districts of Ganjam, Balangir, Kendrapara, Bhadrak, Jajpur and Balasore. Instructions were issued for strict observance of physical distancing norms at quarantine centres and registration, testing and quarantine were made mandatory for workers returning from other States and overseas. Naveen Patnaik also directed officials to focus on restoration of livelihoods in the green zones by facilitating agricultural and industrial activities without any hindrance.

The situation, however, turned difficult since the first week of May with many returnees from Gujarat, West Bengal and other States testing positive. Ganjam, the Chief Minister’s home district, recorded its first two cases on May 3 when the State had already detected more than 160 cases. But when the State’s total number of positive cases was inching towards the 900 mark by the third week of May, Ganjam alone accounted for more than one-third of these cases.

Until Ganjam started reporting positive cases, most of the cases detected in Bhubaneswar city and the districts of Jajpur, Bhadrak, Balasore and Sundargarh were those with travel history to cities outside the State and those who had managed to return from neighbouring West Bengal during the initial weeks of the lockdown.

Since Ganjam emerged as a major hotspot, the State government deputed three Indian Administrative Service officers and five Odisha Administrative Service officials to assist the district administration. The district has 3,212 villages spread over 503 gram panchayats, apart from one Municipal Corporation, one municipality and 16 Notified Areas Councils. Apart from an exclusive COVID-19 hospital, the government set up four COVID care centres and more than 3,000 TMCs in the district.

Of the 876 positive cases in the State as of May 18, as many as 754 were returnees and 122 were from the local population. The detection and treatment were possible as the returnees were sent to quarantine centres, making it easy for the administration to collect samples for testing and shifting those testing positive to the 30-odd COVID-19 hospitals across the State.

As a result, there was no evidence to suggest that the community was affected by the virus. The infection was largely confined to TMCs and containment zones. No doctor or health care personnel was infected, barring a sarpanch in Ganjam.

In fact, the State’s burden multiplied as the lockdown was extended. Initially, its task was to strengthen health care infrastructure to detect and treat COVID-19 cases and enforce the lockdown and ensure the well-being of Odia people stranded in other States.

Then it had to take measures such as booking trains and coordinating with the Centre and other State governments for the return of migrant workers who were losing patience due to the continued lockdown and large-scale infections in the cities they were in. Meeting the challenge posed by the people who returned to the State became its third major task.

The State government, meanwhile, extended the quarantine period from 14 days to 28 days—21 days at the quarantine facilities in rural areas and one week of home quarantine. For those returning to urban areas from other States and overseas, the period of isolation was extended from 14 to 28 days. Those having separate rooms and bathroom/toilet facilities were allowed to stay in home quarantine. The government issued a standard operating procedure for monitoring those in home quarantine in urban areas.

Along with the returnees, their family members were asked to be in quarantine for the specified period. A quarantine sticker was pasted at the entrance of the house and neighbours were intimated accordingly.

But better management of the TMCs remained the focus of the administration since the State was expecting more than five lakh people to return. Nearly two lakh Odias had returned to the State in three weeks from April 29. Keeping this in view, the government streamlined the functioning of the TMCs by improving the menu and adding facilities, including installation of invertors to cope with power failure. CCTV cameras were installed at the TMCs to monitor those leaving or visiting the premises.

In order to ensure strict implementation of quarantine protocol during the fourth phase of lockdown, the administration declared all TMCs, COVID-19 care centres and hospitals as containment zones apart from those that would be declared in the aftermath of detection of new cases.

Afraid of possible community transmission, the local people kept the sarpanchs informed about anyone violating the quarantine protocol. People across the State followed “social distancing” and wore masks earning the appreciation of the government.

The administration set up more testing facilities to detect cases. Ten laboratories, including one in the private sector, were already running in different regions of the State. The State succeeded in testing more than 5,000 samples a day. A total of 96,000 samples had been tested by the third week of May.

Further, the State was in the process of creating testing facilities at several other government-run medical colleges at Koraput, Balangir, Balasore and Baripada to continue its fight against the pandemic. The aim was to increase its testing capacity to 15,000 samples a day.

The authorities are further strengthening the health care facilities apprehending that the number of cases would increase in the coming weeks in view of the arrival of more returnees. Apart from increasing the number of intensive care units and beds at the COVID-19 hospitals, the Chief Minister ordered the procurement of more ventilators.

The State was fully geared up to overcome the challenge posed by the pandemic with the active support of the people. “Odisha has been able to keep COVID-19 well under control because of the strong community motivation and participation under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Community is aware and alert and Odisha will win this fight soon,” said Tripathy.

Everybody was hopeful of winning over COVID-19 since the State’s recovery rate was impressive and its death rate was low. Of the 978 cases detected until May 19, as many 277 had recovered, including an 85-year-old woman and 20 children below the age of 14. Only five deaths were reported.

The State’s policy towards COVID-19 patients as well as victims of lockdown has been based on a humanitarian approach. It had been striving to assist Odias stranded outside and helping workers from other States stranded in Odisha to return to their native places. The migrant workers passing through the State were provided food and transport facility up to the State borders.

As life was slowly returning to normal with the easing of lockdown restrictions, the formation of cyclone Amphan on the Bay Bengal meant that the government had to initiate its disaster-preparedness drill. The administration evacuated people from the coastal areas while complying with physical distancing norms. Coastal district administrations were asked to shift quarantine centres situated within three kilometres of the coast. Odisha breathed easy only after Amphan changed its course and moved towards West Bengal and Bangladesh.

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