Hyderabad: In August, a beedi manufacturer from Balvanthapur, a village of around 2,000 people located in the interiors of Telangana’s Jagtial district, hosted a grand wedding reception for his son, inviting more than 200 guests.
This was a violation of Covid-19 norms set by the KCR government — which only allows weddings with 50 guests, in line with central government guidelines. Days after the ceremony, about 70 of the guests tested positive.
In Dharmapuri, also in Jagtial, 250 people attended a wedding ceremony in August, and 68 subsequently tested positive.
The bride and groom’s parents “felt so guilty”, they stopped meeting people after the virus breakout, according to a source close to the family.
“The situation in Balvanthapur was such that people in the entire village had to go into to a ‘self-quarantine’ after this spread… they locked themselves inside the house,” said District Medical Officer P. Sridhar. “We got to know that there were no masks, no physical distancing at all at the wedding.”
Balvanthapur and Dharmapuri are not alone. Across Telangana and sister Telugu state Andhra Pradesh, easing lockdown restrictions since June have brought reports of large-scale community events, primarily weddings, being organised in villages. Dozens of guests throng the events, which invariably emerge as sites of mass Covid outbreaks.
In mid-July and August, there was an increase in the number of weddings on account of ‘Shravana Masam’, which is believed to be an auspicious period in the Hindu/Telugu calendar.
Since many of these villages are in the interiors, district-level officials say they only come to know of the events once a series of infections emerges and they set out to trace the source.
There is no data to help estimate the exact incidence of Covid-19 in rural areas in the two states, but Andhra and Telangana saw a 282 per cent and 140.8 per cent spurt in cases, respectively, between 1 August and 14 September.
As the states look to check the spread of Covid-19, the authorities say they have now shifted their focus to rural areas.
Govindhapur, a village of 350 people located near Telangana’s Karimnagar town, reported 60 Covid cases after a wedding celebration in late July. About 40 per cent of Karimnagar’s 9,000-odd positive cases are in the rural areas, according to District Medical Officer Dr Sujatha.
In Andhra Pradesh, 100 of 300 guests were diagnosed with Covid-19 after a family in village Chelluru hosted a wedding reception in June.
Chelluru is located in East Godavari district, which now has the highest number of cases in the state. Chelluru, which has a population of about 11,000 people, also saw a spurt in cases when a group of at least 20 people tested positive after attending a wedding in nearby Gollala Mamidada village.
Gollala Mamidada itself emerged as a hotspot after a wedding and a birthday party in June.
“By the time we trace all these people — they’re already mingling with others, so the spread is wide. We were not in a position to accommodate so many people from Chelluru village in quarantine centres for isolation,” said District Coordinator (Hospitals) T. Ramesh Kishore. “The village had to go under self-quarantine.”
The chain of infections from these villages has also touched neighbouring areas such as Ramachandrapuram, Anaparthi, Mandapeta and Rayavaram, added District Medical Officer Dr M. Mallik.
East Godavari, which reported about 45 cases in early May, now has a tally of 78,220. The second highest number of cases, 51,966, is in Kurnool, where about 30 per cent of the incidence has been reported from rural areas, said an official from the District Health Department who did not wish to be named.
Not just weddings
While weddings may be a more frequent occurrence, they are not the only community event bringing large crowds together. For instance, the festival of ‘Varalakshmi Vratham’ was celebrated on a grand scale in East Godavari district on 31 July.
Temples were crowded, gatherings were held, and much of it was without masks and distancing, District Coordinator T. Ramesh Kishore said.
At Alimpur village in Telangana’s Jangaon district, 94 people from the same family tested positive after attending a ceremony held in July to mark the 10th day of someone’s death.
“It’s a culture in Telangana families, where alcohol is served on the 10th-day death ceremony. Here too, people consumed alcohol, got together — not one person wore a mask, thinking it was within the family,” said District Medical Officer Dr Mahender. “About 50 per cent of Jangaon’s cases are in the rural areas.”
According to the authorities, the easing of the lockdown and inter-state travel are the primary reasons that led to the spread of Covid cases in the rural belt.
The latter reason was identified as a factor as far back as May, when residents of Chittoor, 3 km from the Tamil Nadu border, who were involved in business at the Koyambedu wholesale market in Chennai, began testing positive for Covid. The market, which remained open through much of the lockdown, emerged as a hotspot in May, and has been shut since, with plans to reopen it this week.
Chittoor is also home to the famous Tirumala temple. Despite over 700 Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam staffers testing positive, and through a lockdown in the town where it’s located, the temple board has refused to shut it down since it reopened in June.
‘Lack of awareness, no Covid precautions in rural areas’
According to the health departments of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, they are focusing more on rural areas now than urban ones.
In an attempt to spread the message to the most interior areas, the district authorities are using ‘tom toms’, or autorickshaws, playing a recorded message in local languages, and advertisements aired via local cable networks.
“Home isolation is tough in villages where people stay in smaller houses. So, if one person is testing positive, the entire family is becoming part of the chain,” said Andhra Pradesh Covid Coordinator Dr K. Rambabu.
“Another reason is lack of physical distancing. In villages, it is a cultural thing for groups of people to hang out in the evenings.”
Andhra Pradesh carried out ‘fever surveys’ across the state in multiple phases, starting as early as March. Health Department officials say the state was quite proactive when it came to “early identification of suspects”.
The management in different districts is also focusing on strengthening the local primary healthcare centres and making healthcare more accessible to the rural belt, Rambabu added.
In Telangana, Hyderabad and the surrounding urban areas have emerged as a Covid cluster, but the district managements are raising concerns that rural pockets are seeing a similar spread.
“In fact, in urban areas, the spread is slowly coming down. However, in second metropolitan areas in districts such as Warangal, Nizamabad, the cases are rising. Same case with rural areas,” Telangana Covid Coordinator Dr P. Sravan Kumar said.
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