Raipur: The tribal-dominated Bastar region in Chhattisgarh has remained relatively untouched by the Covid-19 pandemic, registering barely 36 of the total 1,756 positive cases in the state as of 16 June.
In fact, of the 28 districts in the state, three have reported zero Covid-19 positive cases so far, according to the state’s data. All three are tribal districts in Bastar region.
This, experts say, could be a result of their food habits and lifestyle, giving them better immunity against the highly infectious disease that so far infected over 3.43 lakh people in India and 81 lakh worldwide. India has the fourth highest number of infections in the world.
Pointing to the presence of wild roots, vegetables and mushrooms that are known to be immunity enhancers in the diets of Bastar’s tribals, agricultural and regional experts believe this is a key aspect to their natural immunity, stressing that a thorough scientific study should be done to establish this.
“We know that wild food habits of tribals in Bastar region have helped them keep their physical immunity strong in order to counter the impact of corona. However, so far this is limited to an assumption and a strong belief by all of us. This needs to be backed and established scientifically,” said Dr Swapan Kumar, associate professor at the School of Anthropology, Bastar University.
Coronavirus cases in Chhattisgarh
A comparison of the coronavirus numbers across the five revenue divisions in the state shows Bilaspur recorded the highest with 746 cases, followed by Raipur with 374 cases, Durg with 317 and Sarguja with 241. Bastar, with only 36 cases, has the least number and is separated by a wide margin from the others.
Bilaspur tested the maximum (around 32,100) number of samples while Sarguja tested the least (around 11,340). Bastar has tested more than 18,180 samples.
According to labour department officials, more than 90 per cent of samples taken in Bastar were of migrant workers. Nearly 20,000 tribals migrate every year to work as labourers, mostly in Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
After the lockdown to contain the spread of the infection was announced on 24 March, migrants from cities, primarily Delhi and Mumbai, left in droves. Walking, cycling, catching government-arranged buses and trains, they clamoured to come back home amid fears of falling sick and jobs drying up overnight.
The exodus continues even today, mostly on Shramik trains arranged by the railways ministry.
Sukma, Narayanpur and Bijapur, which are all tribal districts in Bastar, have not reported a single coronavirus case until now. Other districts, which include Dantewada, Kondagaon, Kanker and Jagdalpur, account for the 36 cases in the region. Of these, Kondadagaon and Dantewada reported their first cases only last week.
So far, 890 cases of Covid-19 have recovered in the state, according to the Union health ministry’s data released Tuesday morning.
What the numbers mean to experts
Experts and anthropologists working in tribal areas of the state believe two important factors are behind Bastar’s low numbers — the unique quarantine method forest dwellers have developed themselves to maintain social distancing, and their natural food and living habits.
Talking to ThePrint, Dr Akhilesh Tiwari, data in-charge, Chhattisgarh’s Covid-19 Control and Command Centre, said, “Most of the people in tribal areas usually consume kandamul (root vegetables), fruits and vegetables as their staple food in daily life. This makes their immunity much higher than the people living in urban and other rural areas.”
Noting that no scientific study has been conducted on this theory, Dr Tiwari said it could be an interesting research topic. However, of the samples taken, he said, it was important to note how many of them were of migrants.
“Although it’s a well known fact that the number of migrant workers is high, more analysis is necessary,” he added.
Dr Rajendra Singh, a prominent researcher on forest dwellers who works in Jagdalpur, said, “Villagers of Bastar region who live on a staple diet of naturally grown roots and leafy vegetables, fruits and other minor forest produces, had already learnt the importance of quarantine well in time, apart from their natural way of maintaining social distancing.”
He said even before the social distancing guidelines were issued by the central and state governments, the tribals had executed their system with the help of the local administration, preventing migrant workers and outsiders from entering village.
The food that tribals consume is one of the key points experts keep returning to while talking about the region’s immunity.
“Boda fungus grown in wild on saal trees, soft basta of bamboo plants and the mushroom variety futu are important part of the regular food of the tribals here. Apart from this, they also consume leafy vegetables like bhohar, charota and kiliyari as part of their staple diet,” said Dr Tushar Panigrahi, an agriculture expert who follows the food habits of the tribals in Bastar.
These food items provide immense amount of nutrients like amino acids, vitamin C, iron and folic acid that help the villagers in Bastar to keep their their immunity strong, he said.
Panigrahi added that besides wild foods, what has probably helped the Bastar tribals stay healthy is their lifestyle, which limits interactions with outsiders to almost negligible, a “quarantine in a natural way”.
Need for scientific study
If Bastar’s food habits are protecting its people, how about tribals in bordering districts of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha? Experts say the same results aren’t seen there since the food habits are different due to low or no availability of non-timber forest produce.
“Apart from this, people in adjoining villages of border states are also more urbanised and follow the food habits of their parent states,” said agricultural expert Dr Panigrahi.
In the absence of a study or any credible information on how these factors affect tribals in the context of Covid, experts have looked at how the people have fared during epidemics in the past.
Despite a substantial prevalence of malnutrition in the region, they say, past epidemics have not impacted the tribals much.
“Going by the history of epidemics in the region, I can say with confidence that diseases never had any big fatal impact in this region, barring malaria. We hear that cholera, with its killing impact across the country during British era in the 1940s, did not have much impact in this region mainly because locals had their own ways of prevention,” said former Union minister Arvind Netam, considered an authority on tribal traditions.
“Our elders say people used to smear their body with mahua (Adhatoda indica) juice while going for the last rites of deceased persons. This apparently proved a successful preventive measure in those days, but there is no scientific backing so far,” Netam said, adding that though modern medicine now available to tribals, they mostly rely on traditional methods.
According to him, the Covid pandemic presents an opportunity to “test the power of our own naturally grown food materials”.
Agreeing, Dr Swapan Kumar said there was a need to conduct a comparative study of the immune system of tribals and the people from other urban areas.
In the absence of treatment or a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 that causes Covid-19, understanding which foods could help prevent an infection could go a long way, he added.
Dr Anand Murti Mishra, an assistant professor of anthropology at Bastar University, echoed similar views. “Immunity theory of tribals through their wild food habits is not a hypothesis. It’s real and cannot be dismissed, but requires a scientific study and investigation to back these beliefs. Besides, fungus boda grown in wild and soft basta nodes of bamboo plants are known immunity enhancers.”