Unsuspecting rural communities in India’s north not ready to fight pandemic

Subhash Kumar grows rice and maize on his two-acre plot of land situated in a frontier region of north India’s Jammu and Kashmir.

On March 24 Kumar went to the largest nearby town to buy some fertilizer but found the shops closed and roads bare of traffic.

The 45-year-old met some police who told him a lockdown was in place to contain the new coronavirus pandemic. They told him to go home and not to venture out.

It was the first day of the country-wide lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Public transport has been suspended and people have been asked to stay indoors till April 14. As of April 1, more than 1,600 people in India have been infected by the virus while there have been 35 deaths.

But back at his village, Kumar found life was going on as per usual. Children were playing cricket in an open field while women collected cow dung. A good number of people were praying at the local temple.

Kumar said that the people in his area are not very aware about the virus and the threat it poses.

“No one is staying home here. They all want to work in the fields and spend the days as per their routine,” Kumar told LiCAS.news. “The reason is that we live far away from the city lights and know nothing about what is going on there,” he said.

Dilawar Khan, another local farmer was busy feeding his cattle when he was asked about the government’s directions to stay indoors.

“What virus are you talking about?” Khan said. “It is nothing, but a myth manufactured by some tricksters. We don’t believe in this nonsense,” he added.

Manish Sharma, a researcher from Jammu University’s sociology department, said the lack of information in rural areas about the virus was a serious issue.

“They don’t know why washing of the hands is important and how social distancing can keep them safe from the disease,” he said, adding that the government has made efforts to inform people but are hampered by a lack of resources.

Jagdish Singh, a social activist from the same village as Kumar’s, said that most people in isolated rural areas don’t have television or the internet to keep informed and so rely on word of mouth.

Seventy percent of India’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas but their access to government services, including those related to health is poor.

A church supported self-help group making masks to be freely distributed in the fight against the spread of coronavirus in Jammu and Kashmir. (Photo by Umer Asif)

To help bridge this gap, the Jammu and Kashmir Catholic Social Service Society is helping local rural communities deal with the virus threat.

Church agency’s director Father Saiju Chacko told LiCAS.news that spreading awareness among rural folk about the disease and preventative measures was their main focus.

“As part of that we tell village elders and the women why it’s safer to stay at home and advise them not to move outside unnecessarily,” Father Chacko said.

Madhulika Sharma, coordinator of the project, said that the agency and its self-help groups are making around 50,000 face masks which will be distributed for free among the local population. She said that they are collaborating with the government to best distribute the masks.

Self-help group member Pooja Devi, was earlier trained in tailoring by a church program, is now making the masks and distributing them.

“It’s a tough time at present but if we play a constructive role in making people aware of the virus we can save precious lives,” Devi said.

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