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Superstition keeps Bengal tribals off Covid test & vaccine, govt says ‘can’t drag people out’

Lack of awareness & poor healthcare facilities add to fear of treatment & superstition among tribal villagers, making it a challenge for the Bengal govt to handle the Covid crisis in these villages.

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Bankura: Hanspatal maane haanste haanste patal (Hospital means going to hell smiling), Corona sui maane koro na sui (Corona vaccine means do not take the needle) — these are the reasons 45-year-old Bhim Hansda, a field labour in Bankura’s Taldangra Panchayat area, a remote and forested locality, gave when asked if he had been tested for Covid.

Hansda, a resident of Dalan Gorah village, had fever for five days last week. Although the temperature has abated, he still feels weak.

His wife, Sona, too had fever around the same time. But neither of them were tested for Covid or have been vaccinated against the disease.

The Hansdas are not the only ones in the region to harbour such apprehensions about accessing healthcare facilities for Covid.

Fever, cough, breathing difficulties and rashes are common among residents in this area, said villagers, but they prefer to consult quacks or at the most, the government’s telemedicine facility, rather than going to the primary healthcare centres or hospitals. Residents insisted that these people are willing to prescribe medicines based on symptoms, and don’t demand a Covid test report.

Sona Hansda and her daughter. No one in their family has been vaccinated | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Sona Hansda and her daughter. No one in their family has been vaccinated | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Bina Mandi, a resident of Dhabani village in the district, had also been running a temperature for a few days. Mandi told ThePrint that last week she had called the telemedicine number.

“The doctor (who answered the call) prescribed me some medicines and told me a Covid test was not needed. I got the medicines from the primary healthcare centre, based on the prescription,” she said.

Vaccine hesitancy and aversion to getting tested for Covid — primarily driven by superstition and misinformation — seem to be the toughest challenge facing the Mamata Banerjee government in tackling the Covid crisis here, in the tribal-dominated villages of Bankura.

According to the state health bulletin released Monday, the district had recorded 110 fresh cases in the past 24 hours and had 668 active cases. The district medical college and hospital had tested 731 samples in the past 24 hours, of which 110 tested positive. This makes the district’s positivity rate around 16 per cent. There have been 249 Covid deaths in Bankura, 183 during the second surge.

Across the state, 1,78,61,500 people had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of 14 June. The state does not share district-specific vaccination figures.

“The village heads are telling people to not go to hospitals for tests and they are also discouraging vaccination. Our teams have been trying to convince people, but because of superstition and vaccine hesitancy people are not cooperating,” said a senior official in the district administration.

“We are trying for door-to-door vaccination, but often there is no cooperation from locals,” he added.

But even where patients are willing to visit hospitals or go for tests, the state of healthcare — crowded hospitals, delays in receiving reports — are factors that work against the medical set-up here.

Referring to the comparison drawn between hospitals and “hell” by Hansda, Prashanta Rakshit, director, Pashim Banga Kheriya Sabar Kalyan Samity, a tribal welfare organisation with which late author Mahashweta Devi had been associated, said, “This is a common saying among the villagers. It is more a reflection of the condition of hospitals and primary health centre’s here, than superstition harboured by the residents.”

The concern voiced by people in Bankura is shared by villagers across the tribal-dominated Jangalmahal area of the state, spread across West Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and parts of Birbhum districts, said Rakshit.

According to him, what is needed to combat the test and vaccination hesitancy among the residents here is an energetic awareness drive by the authorities.

Subrata Mukherjee, the state’s Panchayats and Rural Development Minister told ThePrint that efforts are being made to educate the villagers about the need for proper treatment and vaccination.

“All panchayats across districts are working on the vaccination process. Panchayat members are going to villages, getting eligible persons enrolled for vaccination and asking them to visit the healthcare centres for the shot. Some turn up, but many don’t,” he said.

Pleading helplessness in combating the resident’s unwillingness to seek medical help, the minister added, “We cannot force or drag people out of their houses. We are vaccinating the willing people, and an awareness campaign is also on.”

Also read: This all-women Bengal team is ‘smashing stereotypes’, helping patients with food & medicine

‘Went to the healthcare centre thrice’

The Bankura Sammilani Medical College & Hospital is the biggest hospital in the district. When ThePrint visited the hospital last week, the hospital premises were crowded with hundreds of family members of patients, making it a hotbed of infections.

Every once in a while, security personnel would try to disperse the gathering. But the people would reassemble as soon as the guards returned to their posts.

“I have been staying outside the hospital block for the past 15 days. My wife is pregnant and Covid-positive. I stay at least 40 km away from the hospital. It is not possible for me to travel here every day,” said Asit Mahato, pointing to a plastic sheet that he has been using to sleep on.

The Covid lockdown in the state has made it even more difficult for family members to travel to the hospital daily. And, so, they have just been camping on the premises.

Family members of patients camp inside the premises of the Bankura Sammilani Medical College & Hospital| Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Family members of patients camp inside the premises of the Bankura Sammilani Medical College & Hospital| Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

The condition of the hospitals is one of the reasons why residents are reluctant to seek medical help, said Rakshit.

“Even before the pandemic hit us, villagers were never keen to go to hospitals. With the Covid crisis, the situation in rural hospitals became even worse. There is no space for patients. Beds are not available, not just for Covid, but even for non-Covid patients,” he claimed.

Rakshit’s organisation works among tribals across Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore districts. Mahasweta Devi, who had been associated with the organisation, had also worked extensively among the tribal population in the western part of the state.

“They (the villagers) feel that they would die if they go to the hospital. And now there is a similar apprehension growing against vaccinations. We know that many people died of Covid-like symptoms, but they never got themselves tested,” said Rakshit.

According to him, “vaccines have started reaching the block primary healthcare centres this very month. The villagers need to be sensitised, and the government has to do that. We do not see any such involvement by the administration as of now.”

His words are reflected in the apprehension of Bhim’s neighbour, Kanoni Soren, who told ThePrint, “Our villages are so hot, and we mostly live in the forests. There is no way Corona can touch us (because they live in such remote areas). The vaccine will kill us, not Corona.”

Her mother, 80-year-old Sukhomoni Soren added, “Corona sui (injection) means going against God. We will never do so.”

Even those who are willing to seek medical help, lose heart thanks to the difficulties they face in the process

Sambari Soren, a resident of the district’s Saltora village, said she went to the block primary health centre 15 kilometres away from her village for a Covid test. But the report — she tested positive — arrived after a week.

“I went to the healthcare centre thrice to get my report. But every time I was turned back and told it hadn’t come yet. Finally, I started having our herbal medicines which treated my cough and fever,” said Soren.

Although the home remedy cured her illness, Soren said, “ I was not in isolation. But I came to know about the positive report only after seven days.”

Rakshit claimed that an informal survey by his organisation has revealed that only about 10 per cent of the total affected population in these villages have been tested for Covid.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: ‘Survived Covid, but dying businesses will kill us’: Bengal kantha artists are now labourers


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