Allahabad/Fatehpur/Gorakhpur: Inderpal Pasi, 45, a farm labour in Pratappur village, approximately 53 km north of Prayagraj, is seated with three others, inside a thatched hut at the village square, on a hot Sunday afternoon.
The friends are animatedly discussing the “corona” situation in their block, Shankargarh, where the lone Community Health Centre (CHC) is located. “Wahan har doosre ghar me ek bukhar ka marij hain. Log bukhar se mar rahen hain (Every second house in that village has someone who is suffering from fever. People are dying of fever),” Pasi tells his friends.
But he is emphatic that none of them should go to the CHC to get themselves tested for Covid, even if they do fall ill. “Hospital me corona wali sui laga rahe hain. Uske lagane se log mar rahen hain (In hospital they are giving the corona injection. People are dying because of it),” Pasi tells ThePrint.
Pasi and his friends are not the only ones in Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) villages to harbour such apprehensions against seeking medical help for Covid.
From misgivings about the “corona sui” that kills, to not being returned the bodies of the departed, the fear that their kidneys will be taken out when they are in hospital and that they will be locked up in hospital rooms all alone — in villages across UP, such rumours, are keeping people from seeking medical help even when they do get infected.
ThePrint met several dozen villagers in Gorakhpur, Allahabad, Fatehpur and Kaushambi districts, who said they’d prefer to die at home, than get themselves tested for Covid and get “locked up” in hospitals all alone.
Doctors at community health centres admitted that owing to such apprehensions, the villagers only seek medical help when they become extremely critical, but there is little that can be done at that point to save them.
Sidharth Nath Singh, UP’s MSME minister and the government spokesperson, however, told ThePrint that the government is tackling the situation and building awareness with the help of accredited social health activists (ASHA) workers and women’s self-help groups.
The healthcare centres, though, are ill-equipped to handle a pandemic of this magnitude.
Covid casualties have gone up, with healthcare centres reporting two-three deaths daily. Many deaths are not even getting registered as Covid-related, since they are happening at home, without the cause of death being confirmed.
‘They will take out our kidney’
“In our village, every house has two-three people who are ill… they are at home. Nobody has gone to the CHC to get themselves tested,” said Satti Lal, a farmer in Fatehpur district’s Khakhreru village.
It’s fear that’s keeping even those with Covid symptoms, such as fever and shortness of breath, from getting themselves tested, admitted Vansidhar Dwivedi, a retired school principal in Lallapur village, Shankargarh block.
“Logo ko darr hain ki agar kuch ho gaya toh hospital se body bhi nahi milega. Body ko mitti dene wala bhi koi nahi hoga (People here fear that if they die of Covid in the hospital, their body will not be returned. Nobody will be there to conduct even the last rites),” Dwivedi explained.
The other, albeit strange, apprehension among the people here, is that “gurda nikaal lenge agar positive aata hai (They will take out the kidney if results are positive),” said Dwivedi.
Dr Shailendra Kumar Singh, in-charge of the CHC of Shankargarh block, labels the fear of losing one’s kidney as “bizarre”. But there’s no denying that it’s keeping villagers from seeking medical help.
“This is the most bizarre rumour doing the rounds in some of the villages, that if a person tests positive and is kept in an isolation ward in the hospital, his kidney will be taken out,” said Singh.
He added that the CHC sends out ASHA workers to create awareness about Covid-19 and to tell people to get themselves tested if they have fever or cough and cold.
“But villagers are wary. The pitfall is that villagers turn up at the CHC only when their condition becomes very serious. There is very little we can do at that point and have to refer the person to the district hospital,” he said.
As it is, the CHCs in villages lack even basic infrastructure and are ill equipped to handle serious patients.
CHCs across villages are conducting limited Covid tests. Most are only doing rapid antigen tests, which are not very effective in detecting infections. RTPCR tests, which are considered the ‘gold standard’ in testing, are being conducted in a very limited manner, hospital staff at CHCs in Gorakhpur, Allahabad and Fatehpur districts told ThePrint.
Even when RTPCR samples are collected, Dr Singh at the Shankargarh CHC said, they are sent to district hospitals and it takes five-six days to receive results.
Understandably, villagers — even those willing to seek medical help — are unhappy with the state of the facilities.
“There is nothing in the community and primary health centres here. You go there, madam, and check yourself. There is neither medicine, nor oxygen,” said Vinod Kumar Tripathi, who runs a small brick kiln, in Loharpur village, Fatehpur district.
Staff at the Khakhreru CHC said that they have heard of people dying in nearby villages in the block after getting fever, but in the absence of any official medical record, it is difficult to confirm what caused the deaths.
Dr Deepak Seth, medical superintendent, Manjhanpur government hospital, Kaushambi district, told ThePrint that in his entire medical career, spanning almost four decades, he has not seen such a catastrophe.
“Every second person is coming here with a shortness of breath. We try to revive them, but in most of the cases, by the time they reach us it is impossible to save them. In the past one week alone, there have been 10 deaths at our hospital. There are two-three deaths daily,” he said.
The Manjhanpur district hospital has been designated an L2 facility for treating Covid patients. This means they can take in those who need oxygen support. The hospital has around 70 beds and currently all are full, Dr Seth said.
‘No government official or neta to be seen’
Doctors at CHCs and district administration admit the need for vigorous and immediate awareness-building campaigns in villages to check the spread of Covid in rural areas.
Unlike in Prayagraj city, where the district administration has put up public address systems at busy roundabouts that blare out information about Covid-19 through the day, including what do’s and don’ts to follow and what are the punishments for breaking Covid protocol, ThePrint did not come across any such system in villages in and around Prayagraj, or in the other nearby districts.
While Dr Singh at the Shankargarh CHC said that they send out ASHA workers to go to villages to create awareness about Covid, he admitted that it is not enough.
The authorities, meanwhile, deny that villages are being neglected.
Bhanu Chandra Goswami, Prayagraj District Magistrate, told ThePrint that it’s not correct to say that no awareness-building campaigns are being conducted in villages.
“We have directed the SDM (sub divisional magistrates) to go to villages to tell people about the importance of getting tested [for Covid] if they are unwell. The SDMs have also been told to conduct awareness drives on Covid pandemic in villages.”
Minister and government spokesperson Sidharth Nath Singh said, “Everybody is working to manage the pandemic. In rural areas, ASHA workers and women self-help groups have been roped in to conduct door-to-door to awareness-building campaigns about the pandemic.”
Villagers, however, clearly feel that the efforts are not enough and said they have been left to fend for themselves.
“So many people are dying in hospitals. There is so much fear among villagers. But there is hardly any official from the government or any elected neta to be seen. Shouldn’t they have stood with us at this hour of crisis?” said Vansidhar Dwivedi of Lallapur village.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)