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Poor health infrastructure, vaccine hesitancy 'rampant' in rural West Bengal

By IMPRI Team 

Participating in a webinar on Rural Realities -- West Bengal, organised the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, senior activist Sankar Halder, who is founder president, Mukti, has said that while several cyclones that had devastated the South Bengal region since November 2019, the two Covid-19 waves had led to massive devastation of livelihoods of those who depended upon agriculture, fishing and government-aid to survive.
Highlighting the demographic picture of the region, he said, here, 30-35% of the residents were migrant workers. Lockdowns in cities coupled with natural disasters such as cyclones posed a livelihood challenge for the locals. Migrant workers were unable to return to the cities for work. Saline water from cyclones had damaged agricultural land and washed away dwellings. As a result, large sections had fallen below the poverty line.
Sankar attributed four factors to the worsening Covid crisis in Bengal: Crowding due to Assembly elections, inability of cities to effectively tackle the new wave, lack of infrastructure in rural areas, and social stigma attached to the virus. Mukti was involved in the distribution of oximeters and oxygen concentrators to make up for the deficiencies in public health infrastructure.
Speaking on the occasion, Tanmoy Bhaduri, independent journalist and development communication expert, said, not only was there was shortage of vaccines, digital divide and glitches that marred the Co-win portal. Lack of medical services such as ambulances, private nursing homes and ICU beds in rural as well as urban areas added to the woes.
He spoke about the absence of political help as compared to the last year. Only volunteers were responding to emergency calls. Further, several NGOs were facing difficulties in accessing aid to help the poor, marginalized and daily wage workers in the rural areas. Diversion of aid to medical needs such as oxygen cylinders and concentrators made hunger invisible.
Vikram Rai, assistant professor, St Joseph College, founder, Vik Run Foundation, said in the hilly region there was lack of infrastructure Social stigma raged during pandemic in Darjeeling. Backlog of RTPCR test results along with the stigma attached with Covid positive patients exacerbated the pandemic situation in the region.
Rajen Sundas, a Trinamool Congress leader, talking about his experience about the tea gardens and tea workers, spoke about the hesitation among the rural poor to seek treatment for the virus. The second wave had affected more poor workers compared to the previous wave.
Chandan Kumar Maiti, general secretary, Advanced Society for Headmasters and Headmistresses, West Bengal, spoke about the effect of the pandemic in the Sundarbans areas, such as joblessness, rise in child marriages as well as trafficking, especially of young girls.
Speaking of the educational divide that the pandemic has created, Maiti stated that only 15% of the children can log into online classes. As a result of the digital divide, poor children were suffering from inferiority complex. Dropouts had increased, and if the government fails to form a taskforce on this issue, then the plight of education would only worsen.
High price of treatment along with issues of social boycott prevented the rural dwellers from seeking treatment. As for the rise in child marriages, Maiti stated that headmasters from across the state, along with local child protection committees, undertook counselling sessions. However, girl child trafficking appeared to remain unanswered. Psychological isses, family troubles and lack of education opportunities resulted in girls getting lured by strangers into trafficking.
Dr Samir Kumar Das, professor of political science and director, Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, University of Calcutta, Spoke pointed to two main issues in the rural areas: lack of health infrastructure and difficulty in ramping up infrastructure in a short period of time.
In a situation characterized by poor infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy in rural Bengal, it was imperative to ensure that the government controls the spread of the virus to prevent the villagers from hospitalization, he added. Four steps could have been take to control health crisis in rural areas.
  • Urban areas should have been isolated from rural areas to stem the spread of the virus into non-affected regions.
  • The government should have utilized the databases recorded by religious institutions to enumerate the migrant workers.
  • Community quarantine centres should have been re-opened to isolate the incoming workers into the villages.
  • Rural initiatives such as rural clubs and neighborhood communities should have been mobilized to compensate for the deficiencies of government functioning.
Citing the example of Grameen Library in the Sundarbans as a best practice to ensure continuation of learning, Dr Samir stated that there was a need for more such initiatives. In order to tackle the third wave, he insisted, on the need to have rural and grassroots level initiatives to compensate for inadequate public health infrastructure.
Dr Binayak Sundas, assistant professor, Centre for Himalayan Studies, University of North Bengal, Siliguri, Darjeeling, presented a case-study of Matigara, Naxalbari. He argued for the need to adopt a decentralized approach to contain the pandemic. A bottom-up approach initiated by local clubs had to be the basis around tackling the virus in the tea gardens areas.
Highlighting a four-stage programme to handle the pandemic, Dr Binayak focused on the need to create Village Action Committees (VACs). These committees could better communicate the needs and priorities of a particular locality, and they should be trained in basic healthcare consultations and operating the Covid war-rooms.
He insisted, the third stage required VACs to coordinate with various philanthropist groups such as the Rotary club to set up helplines and send requisite aid to the village. The VACs could act as vigilante groups and enforce lockdowns in their localities.

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