Goalpara: The district administration in Assam’s Goalpara last month found itself in the midst of multiple crises — sudden flash floods during Covid pandemic and lockdown. Over 150 of its villages were inundated even as the district was looking at a second wave of Covid-19 cases.
“I belong to Assam but even for me this was quite an experience,” Goalpara Deputy Commissioner Varnali Deka told ThePrint. “On Day One, there was a cloudburst in the West Garo Hills of Meghalaya and the water just rolled down. In the morning, I got news that it had reached the state highways.”
With the Brahmaputra flowing right through the state, about 40 per cent of Assam is prone to floods. The district administration had been prepared but despite this, the intensity of the pre-monsoon floods took Deka and her officials, who were at the time managing the Covid-19 screening and surveillance exercise in the district, by surprise.
“The chief minister (Sarbananda Sonowal) had given us directions well in time to have a separate setup for Covid and a separate setup for floods; so we had an entirely different team working on floods and an entirely different one for Covid,” Deka said. “In a way that really helped our attempts, otherwise we would have had some kind of panic.”
The floods affected over 2,00,000 people and 150 villages. Even as thousands were brought into the 51 relief camps set up across the district, the administration managed to keep the number of Covid-19 cases to 81 as of Wednesday.
Between a pandemic & a deluge
It was the morning of 25 May, when 31-year-old Bablu Hussain noticed that waters had entered his village house in Goalpara’s Matia. As the water levels continued to rise, he informed the circle officer and the ward member. By afternoon, Bablu and his family were rescued by the Assam State Disaster Management Authority on a speedboat and taken to the nearest government school where a relief camp had been set up.
“At the camp, masks were distributed, people were given khichdi at night and tea in the morning. In the afternoon, the government distributed relief supplies like rice, daal, salt and mustard oil,” he said, stressing that social distancing was properly maintained.
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A total of 187 people had been rescued in the area and brought to the school. Each family was either allotted a single room or kept in bigger rooms where benches were used as partitions. A medical team was also brought in to screen the rescuees for Covid-19 and other diseases.
“That time we were definitely scared of corona. But more than that, we were scared of the flood. Our houses were submerged,” Bablu said. “We weren’t tested but we didn’t notice any symptoms among most people as social distancing was maintained.”
Runal Nath, Circle Officer in-charge of Matia, said the challenge was that there was “no time to prepare”. “Last year, we kept a lot of people in the relief camps. There was no such thing such as social distancing… But now the number of people we could keep in one school has halved. But because there were not a lot of families here, we could manage in one camp.”
Keeping in mind the dual challenge, the disaster management authority had in May published guidelines “on managing flood relief camps in context of Covid-19 outbreak”. According to the guidelines that were included in the state’s Disaster Management Manual 2015, additional relief camps have to be identified based on the population density of a village, sufficient toilet facilities, sanitisers and soaps have to be provided and medical teams have to monitor the camps every day.
Heading the exercise in Goalpara were the deputy commissioner, an additional deputy commissioner, a few assistant commissioners, circle officers of the three flood-hit areas and revenue officials who hadn’t been engaged in managing the Covid-19 situation.
“Floods is something that the state grapples with every year. This year the only difference was that we needed to ensure social distancing in the relief camps,” Deka said. “Earlier whatever was the earmarked number [of relief camps], we made it 3-4 times of that and had a dedicated team working only on rescue and relief…So this has really helped us and it had no impact (on the Covid situation).”
Keeping Covid at bay
Goalpara recorded its first Covid-19 cases back in April when three attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat congregation held in Delhi tested positive. They were among the first cases to be detected in the state. However, in stark contrast to neighbouring Dhubri and Kamrup districts, which have recorded 386 and 552 cases, respectively, Muslim majority Goalpara has reported only 81 cases so far.
“One of the reasons could be the source of the influx — because a number of people that came back to Goalpara are from Kerala and Karnataka and other low prevalence areas,” Deka said. She also highlighted that over 200 people, including doctors and officials, were carrying out contact tracing, and social distancing and awareness building exercises.
The administration had in March also requested mosques across the district to play an announcement about social distancing before and after the azaan, the call for namaaz. The announcement, which appealed to people to pray at home, had been played five times a day for at least three months.
“Goalpara zila administration is appealing that the tarabi namaaz every evening during Ramzan be offered at home instead of going to the mosque. Similarly for other namaaz the same restrictions will apply,” was the announcement that was played during the Ramzan month.
“There was initially some fear here, but now it’s become normal. In Goalpara, everyone follows social distancing,” Nazir Hussain, a local resident, said after offering namaaz at a mosque here. “The district administration has also spread awareness. Shops are opening only in a phased manner and there is not much gathering.”
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