Titoli (Rohtak): Titoli village in Haryana’s Rohtak district has been battling an unprecedented death wave, with over 60 deaths in the last 40 days, either due to high fever, chest pain, shortness of breath or a heart attack. And for this misery, the villagers, who do not know much about the coronavirus or its spread, have one culprit to blame — a 5G mobile tower.
A prayer meeting for the dead in every second house is now a regular site in the village that has officially recorded only eight deaths due to Covid-19.
Ume Singh (94), who in the last 30 days has only been visiting households to mourn deaths, says the village is suffering because of the “monstrous tower”.
“It is not a tower, it is a shaitan (monster) … It has been emitting a deadly virus that is killing everyone. No matter what anyone says, I know that the tower is the culprit,” he said with conviction.
Rani, whose husband died of high fever, has another theory. She believes heavy winds are carrying the virus from the tower to households.
“That night (30 April) when the wind was heavy, too many deaths happened in the village. All of us started feeling uneasy in the chest. It is because the wind carried the virus from the tower. Even the birds and animals are getting affected,” she said.
As these rumours of “some virus” or “Covid” being disbursed through mobile towers spread across villages in Rohtak, deputy commissioner and district police chiefs have been directed to take strict action.
Additional Deputy Commissioner Mahender Pal called these theories “baseless” and said a “lack of awareness” among people was causing this. Residents in the area, however, insist that the tower’s electricity supply should be cut off to prevent more deaths.
“Why can’t they stop the tower of 5G for a few days for us?” said Sheela, a 63-year-old resident whose two nephews died of Covid-like symptoms in the past two days.
“One day after we protested, they shut down the tower a day. That day, no death was reported in the village. The next day when it started again, nine people died,” she added, saying, “We need a hawan in this village.”
This is not a phenomenon unique to just Haryana or India. In the United Kingdom last year, telecom masts that enable the next generation of wireless communication were set on fire by people motivated by a theory that the tech helps spread the coronavirus. The conspiracy was shared widely on social media and many mast fires were reported in Belfast, Liverpool and Birmingham.
5G towers not the problem
While there were reports of several mobile towers being damaged or set on fire by locals from villages across Haryana, Director General of Police, Haryana, Manoj Yadav told ThePrint that three towers were partially damaged in parts of Kethal and Jind districts.
“Only 2-3 towers have been damaged, but not on a large scale … in pockets of Kethal and Jind. The situation is now under control as we have sent teams to make the villagers understand that there is no connection between spread of Covid, related deaths and these towers. We also told them that the testing of 5G has not even begun,” Yadav said.
A senior police officer said that such rumours were being spread by people, who, until last year, were protesting against the three farm reforms brought in by the Centre last September. Towers had been damaged by people protesting against industrialist Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani who claimed the two businessmen were benefitting from the agri reforms.
“These rumours are being spread by leaders who claim to be protestors of farm laws. Last year in November-December, we registered several cases against these people who encouraged locals to damage these towers in support of the farmers. This time too, it is the same set of people spreading these rumours. They have been warned,” Yadav said.
Lack of medical facilities add to problem
As the number of deaths rose and more people began falling sick, residents worked on setting up a 10-bed Covid care center in a village school building on 5 May, for “emergency situations”.
On paper, the centre looks promising — it has beds, mattresses and residents even had the authorities send two oxygen concentrators, two cylinders and some medicines.
But the reality is a “sham, just to fill papers”, according to Manoj Kumar, Titoli panchayat member.
“This facility was opened 10 days ago and SDM (sub divisional magistrate), DC (deputy commissioner) came but there is no staff here. There are only two small cylinders for oxygen, which no one knows how to operate. There is no MBBS doctor (and) only one doctor of Ayurveda has come, who suggests people take home remedies,” he told ThePrint.
“What is an Ayurveda doctor doing here when an MBBS doctor should be put on duty? No one cares about us. We have no facility to admit patients here, no facility for food, even for water,” he added.
The centre doesn’t have trained medical staff to run the center nor a doctor to carry out consultations. Also, there is no provision for admission of patients, or sufficient medicine stock. Only two MBBS interns from Rohtak PGI hospital and one Ayurveda doctor are available at this centre.
“In the first few days after the facility opened, 20-30 patients came with symptoms, but did not get any relief here. The doctor himself turned them away saying he was not equipped to deal with any emergency and cannot suggest any medicines for Covid symptoms,” Kumar further said.
Bubbly, who is part of the staff at the healthcare center, told ThePrint that they had to arrange medication for suspected Covid cases on their own.
“For over 11,000 people, we received only 50 tables each of Vitamin C, Zinc and some steroids. Not many people have come here for isolation because we do not have any staff to look after them. The ones who came with symptoms were turned away because we do not have any medicines to give them. We have one oxygen concentrator, two cylinders, but no one knows how to use them,” she said.
‘Dying despite testing negative’
Compounding the problem is the fact that residents in Titoli do not believe their relatives died of Covid-19 despite showing symptoms. The reason: They tested negative for Covid-19.
According to data accessed by ThePrint, in the month of May, 703 rapid antigen tests and 39 RT-PCR tests were carried out. Of these, only five tested positive.
“They told me to get the test done, so that he can be given proper medication. I agreed and took him for a test, but what happened? I saw him getting breathless and dying before me,” said Pawan Singh. His father had tested negative.
“How do I trust that it was corona or something else? These tests are worthless,” he said.
Bubbly said testing in the village has been very low, but is picking up. However, most of the tests being conducted are rapid antigen tests, which are known for throwing up false negatives. RT-PCR is considered the gold standard for Covid testing but requires access to a lab to process test samples.
“One test shows a negative for a person, but he still dies. So many of these cases have happened and that is why people are not trusting these tests. RT-PCR tests are very less, some teams sometimes conduct those, but the report takes days to come, sometimes after the death of the person,” Bubbly said.
When asked why RT-PCR tests were not being conducted, Additional Deputy Commissioner, Rohtak, Pal said it was due to the “reluctance of the people”.
“What can we do, if they do not want to get tested? People there do not care about their health,” he said. “We have now asked health workers to conduct a door to door survey to encourage people. We will send more teams once that happens.”
‘Whoever takes the injection, dies’
The rise in the number of deaths is also dissuading people from getting vaccinated. With three people in the village dying after having taken the vaccination, some have started to believe vaccinations are causing deaths.
So far, the village has vaccinated 830 people, all above the age of 45 years. Asha workers vaccinating people have a list of residents, who are called to the center to be vaccinated. A health worker at the center told ThePrint that despite the reluctance, there has been an increase people coming for vaccinations.
“Whoever takes the injection dies,” said Om Prakash, a resident. “Pawan’s father died, an Anganwadi worker died. Who would invite death?” he pointed out, adding he would never take the vaccine.
Another resident, 62-year-old Om Bir, dismissed such misgivings. “I have taken the injection and I am fine. Yes, there have been deaths after vaccination, but not many.”
However, Mahender, another resident, accused the administration of being lax. “They are giving injections to everyone, even ones with symptoms, who may be Covid positive. They may be dying because of some complication due to that. They are putting injections just to record numbers.”