COVID-19 Update: Second Wave

COVID-19 spreading into Chhattisgarh’s remote forest areas, and among Maoists

Print edition : June 04, 2021

Security force personnel on patrol after an attack by Maoist fighters in Bijapur in Chhattisgarh on April 4. International humanitarian law dictates that counterterrorism measures must not impede the exclusively humanitarian activities of impartial humanitarian organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which can play a vital role in armed conflicts during times of epidemics and other health crises. Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

The infection seems to be spreading by leaps and bounds into the hinterland, including those areas under the control of armed left-wing extremists. The Central and State governments have not as yet come up with any plan to roll out vaccines in the State’s remote rural and tribal hamlets.

In a worrying development, the security forces in Chhattisgarh suspect that COVID-19 has spread in the rank and file of the Maoists. If this is true, then the worst nightmares of many will have been confirmed: the spread of the infection in the densely forested areas of the hinterland that are sparsely populated with indigenous people.

The first wave of COVID-19 was more or less confined to urban areas. But in the second wave, owing to the complacency of the ruling dispensation at the Centre that percolated down to the common citizen, the infection has moved by leaps and bounds to infect not only villages and towns but also, it seems, remote forests area such as in Bastar district.

In May, while the overall COVID-19 positivity rate declined in Chhattisgarh, there was a surge in infections in rural areas because of social functions such as marriages, according to State Health Minister T.S. Singh Deo. A lockdown is in effect in all 28 districts of the State in varying degrees of strictness and durations, but the Union government has so far not revealed a plan to arrest the infection in areas under the control of armed left-wing extremists.

The Chhattisgarh Police told mediapersons that during a raid on a camp in Bijapur district, they had come across a letter in Gondi purportedly written by a Maoist to another that mentioned an illness that many cadre were falling prey to. While COVID-19 was not expressly mentioned, police officials believe that it is the “dreaded” disease being referred to in the letter, according to which seven Maoists had succumbed to the “illness” and three more were critically ill. “Through news we are hearing about the deaths of several thousand daily. If we stay alive, only then can we carry the revolution forward,” the letter said, according to P. Sundarraj, Inspector General of Bastar Range, who added that in his estimation nearly 50 Maoists, including senior insurgents, were affected by the novel coronavirus.

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Whether this infection spread will lead to a ceasefire remains to be seen, but there are no indications that the Central government has any concrete plan to deal with the situation. In fact, just before the second wave of the pandemic hit the country, Home Minister Amit Shah had announced the launch of a counteroffensive against the Maoists. It was meant to be a retaliation for the April strikes by the Maoists that claimed 28 lives of security personnel. During the first wave, the presence of security forces on the ground was reduced because of fears of infection, and it was believed that the lockdown affected the Maoists’ supply lines.

In any case, if the Indian government wants to effectively inoculate its population, it will have to ensure that vaccines reach all parts of society, including groups of people who are at risk of being overlooked or excluded from national vaccination plans, such as detainees, displaced people and people living under the control of non-state armed groups such as the Maoists. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that globally between 60 million and 80 million people live under the exclusive control of non-state armed groups, and many more live in areas in which non-state armed groups operate. International humanitarian law dictates that counterterrorism measures must not impede the exclusively humanitarian activities of impartial humanitarian organisations such as the ICRC, which can play a vital role in armed conflicts during times of epidemics and other health crises.

The State government announced an inoculation drive that promised free vaccinations to its entire population. According to the government, a substantial percentage of its population above the age of 45 had received the first dose and a walk-in facility was operationalised for those with no access to the Internet or smartphones.

Vaccine policy questioned

Because of a shortage of vaccines, Chhattisgarh decided to roll out its vaccination drive for the 18-44 age group in phases, prioritising the most vulnerable socio-economic groups who are covered under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. This food scheme includes Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, single and widowed women, people suffering chronic diseases, the disabled, the destitute, the homeless and those freed from bonded labour. Only after these groups were vaccinated would below poverty line (BPL) people and then above poverty line (APL) people get their vaccinations. This graded policy for equitable vaccination based on people’s poverty and vulnerability was in line with national and international guidelines, including those of the World Health Organisation. But it hit a roadblock when some parties, including the advocate Himanshu Chaubey and the former MLA Amit Jogi, filed applications in the Chhattisgarh High Court in Bilaspur in an ongoing suo motu case concerning the pandemic.

On May 4, a division bench of the High Court comprising Chief Justice P.R. Ramachandra Menon and Justice Parth Prateem Sahu stated that the subclassification of people to be vaccinated on the basis of their financial status alone was prima facie “unsustainable”. The bench directed the State to frame a better policy, which fixes the ratio of Antyodaya Card holders, BPL Card holders and APL people that would receive the vaccine.

Also read: Death and deceit in Bihar's pandemic crisis

On May 5, the Chhattisgarh government set up a committee under the Chief Secretary to develop a new vaccine policy as directed by the High Court and said that until then the vaccination of 18-44 year olds would be postponed as administering vaccines to people covered under Antyodaya would amount to a violation of the court order. On May 7, the High Court directed the State authorities to continue with vaccinations by equally distributing the available vaccines between Antyodaya and BPL Card holders and APL people in the ratio of one-third to each category until a new policy was framed.

Whatever be the policy, the authorities need to take a call on it urgently. With 10,150 new cases recorded on May 12 and 11,094 total deaths in Chhattisgarh, the virus is not waiting for anybody’s decision. By all accounts, it has already invaded rural and tribal hamlets, and until every person is inoculated, the country and the world remain at risk.

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