Why alarming surge of Covid-19 in rural India is a big challenge

By The SATimes News Service

By Aroon Purie

On March 24, at 8 pm, India imposed one of the severest lockdowns in the world due to the corona pandemic. On that day, there were 574 Covid-19 cases and one death in India.

The country’s 75,062 Covid deaths as on September 10 represent the third-highest toll in the current pandemic. By September 10, total cases in India stood at 4.5 million. Our infectivity rate has also doubled to 8.6 per cent from 4 per cent three months ago. We have added an average of 89,000 cases daily over the past week. The silver lining, albeit a thin one, is our case fatality rate—which measures the severity of a disease—of just 1.7 per cent.

Our recovery rate of 77.7 per cent as on September 9 is among the best in the world. When the lockdown began, Covid was confined to the big cities. Until recently, Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Pune and Kolkata accounted for half of all reported cases.

More worrying for us, however, is a new and alarming trend—the upward arc of Covid cases in our rural hinterland. If between March 1 and July 17, 40 per cent of the Covid cases were from rural and semi-rural districts, the figure has now gone up to 67 per cent. As inter-district travel opens up, states are reporting a spike in rural Covid-19 cases. For example, Odisha currently has 59 per cent rural cases, Jharkhand 41 per cent, Chhattisgarh 37 per cent and Bihar 40 per cent.

In Maharashtra, state health department statistics show that five districts—Nagpur, Osmanabad, Beed, Sangli and Kolhapur—recorded an average rise of 400 per cent in cases in August, compared to 28 per cent in Mumbai. These are frightening figures because the gaps in India’s creaky health infrastructure are the widest in rural areas.

Over 65 per cent of India lives in its villages, but rural India has only 37 per cent of the country’s doctors. Primary health centres or PHCs, the first point of contact between a patient and the public health system in rural India, are understaffed. Close to 2,000 PHCs have no doctors.

Villages have just 3.2 beds per 10,000 people as opposed to the WHO basic norm of 1 for every 300 people.

A rural pandemic will be very different and far more challenging than an urban one, health experts tell us.

Strangely, the surge in Covid cases is still not causing widespread consternation. As states cannot ramp up rural health infrastructure fast enough, they have opted instead for containment measures. Covid-19 has now become a fact of life to which everyone has to adapt.

India cannot afford to shut down its economy again, especially since there are some signs of revival. What is needed is an increase in testing and more public awareness programmes to curb the spread of the virus. Prevention is far better than a cure, especially when the cure is not on the horizon yet.

(The Op-Ed appeared in DailyO)

Image courtesy of (www.sciencemag.org)

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