Goalpara in Assam didn’t only deal with the coronavirus crisis but also an influx of students, workers and businessmen etc, a difficult terrain, Japanese Encephalitis and devastating floods. And even with so many challenges, it has been emerging as a successful district with guidance from the state due to the tireless efforts of the district officials.
The Goalpara story of Covid-19 started in February with the influx of returning migrants. The district administration immediately ensured 100 per cent screening of all returning residents and created an exhaustive database with local contact details and points of origin. Loudspeaker announcements were made throughout the district, spreading awareness about Covid, and exhorting each returnee to report for screening. Control room numbers were also widely publicised.
In the month of March, I sat with all the masjid committees to use their announcement systems for broadcasting messages in the district. The religious leaders readily agreed. I also held a series of small group meetings with community leaders, students bodies, community organisations, senior citizens and religious leaders to spread the message about the importance of Covid precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing etc. This strategy paid off, and Goalpara emerged as one of the districts with the lowest infection rates in Assam. Even as late as 30 July, the rapid-antigen test (RAT) positivity rate was at 2.3 per cent (1.3 per cent, excluding the armed forces).
We constituted a multi-disciplinary, ‘all hands on deck’, central Covid monitoring cell, with handpicked officers from all departments. This acted as a nerve centre of all pandemic efforts, with flying squads as its action wing. Ensuring the convergence of the resources and people of all departments, ramping up efforts of ASHA, health department multi-purpose workers/surveillance workers, Anganwadi workers and lot mandals for door-to-door household surveys, creation of a database of persons with travel history and strict enforcement of home quarantine was prioritised. This resulted in complete containment after the first wave of coronavirus cases, and some of the earliest detections in Assam.
For officers and staff fighting the Covid battle, a #CoronaWarrior #HeroesOfTheDay series was started on the district administration’s social media pages, highlighting the efforts of one or two officials every day.
We gifted frontline Covid workers special ‘care kits’, which included goodies, messages from the District Commissioner and personalised mugs.
We also provided insurance for all medical staff and safai karamcharis through Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives under Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana. It is an additional life cover of Rs 2 lakh (for any kind of death including suicide and accidental deaths), in addition to the insurance amount announced by the government. This is an added measure of security for families of frontline workers.
A collection drive was taken up. I contributed a month’s salary to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Under the #GoalparaCares initiative, the administration even let small donors contribute food and health kits to those in need, at a minimum cost of Rs 350 for a family of five for seven days. With the help of volunteering students, the district administration regularly reached out to vulnerable groups such as senior citizens to ensure safety and easy access to basic provisions during the lockdown.
To address the information asymmetry during the pandemic, we launched the COVAAS app — an integrated one-stop platform that brings together all information, services, analyses, advisories, helplines, and FAQs related to the pandemic. This was my brainchild, developed by the National Informatics Centre and made available on Google Play Store.
Overcoming limited health infrastructure
As travel restrictions were relaxed after May, the administration needed to gear up for challenges of an entirely different kind. All persons coming in by road, rail or air needed to be tested and kept under quarantine. For an Aspirational District like Goalpara, with extremely limited resources, housing facilities and health infrastructure, this was challenging. A database of hostels and educational institutions was created, and area-wise institutions were converted to basic, but comfortable, institutional quarantine centres. Keeping in mind religious sensibilities, special menu items were provided for iftar and sehri during Eid, and simple delicacies during Bihu.
Focusing on Goalpara’s developmental efforts, the district administration, along with the health department, facilitated Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with private hospitals to ensure availability of health facilities at pre-fixed rates, in case the government facilities were overburdened due to Covid-19. Further, keeping in mind that it was Japanese Encephalitis (JE) season in the district, separate Intensive Care Units (ICUs) were created for JE/Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES), and Covid cases.
Ensuring the basics
The district administration sat down with leading suppliers to ensure home delivery of essentials, a concept that was relatively alien in our district prior to this. Discussions with traders ensured price control and no hoarding in the district.
Development of a new era of supply chains addressed the two-pronged challenge of loss of livelihood due to non-sale of farm produce (85 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture), and access to food. One cell was put in place to oversee the demand-supply mapping of food staples and agricultural and animal produce, ensuring district-wide demands were met. Being a feeder district to the abutting Garo Hills districts of Meghalaya, it was also Goalpara’s responsibility to ensure there was unabated food supply to these neighbouring areas. The challenge of distribution was handled through the use of single-point distribution channels with a well-publicised weekly calendar. The whole idea was to ensure zero spoilage and minimum person-to-person contact. Animal feed was also provided through government and philanthropic efforts.
The district administration of Goalpara also mobilised the chemistry departments of regional science colleges to produce sanitisers. A group of disabled persons who were trained in producing plastic alternatives, under an Aspirational District initiative launched by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, were provided sewing machines to come together with other self-help groups (SHGs), under the State Rural Livelihood Mission, and produce sufficient masks and hairnets.
The district administration launched a YouTube Channel called #GoalparaCares. For this, modular, structured videos were created by teachers and uploaded to the channel, and shared on parent-teacher WhatsApp groups.
An academic forum established by district administration, with the support of the Piramal Foundation and UNICEF, provided ‘Knowledge Kits’ to help teachers make videos for YouTube and use ‘planning sheets’. We launched ‘Mission Tarang’ — a learning-from-home campaign, which connected 1,500 teachers with 50 officials, and helped provide more than 10,000 students with psychosocial counselling.
The Goalpara administration distributed various activity-based learning resource materials amongst tribal students, with learning resources translated in Rabha, Garo and Bodo languages that were printed and delivered along with mid-day meals.
Flood during a pandemic
On the night of 24-25 May, the next day being Eid, the rainwater from the Garo hills caused flash floods that ravaged crops, houses and more than a hundred roads. As Assam is a flood-prone state, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had directed each district to create a network of two teams — one specifically geared towards fighting the pandemic, and the other to handle floods. The latter had previously managed the aftermath of storms in March, and was now tasked with handling the flood situation. As news about hundreds of people being marooned reached the district administration, the services of the State Disaster Response Force and the National Disaster Response Force were immediately galvanised, and more than 430 people were brought to safety. As I travelled across the district with the rescue teams, the extent of the damage became obvious.
The next challenge was maintaining Covid safety protocol at the relief camps. But the administration had done its homework, having already created a database of all schools, specifically ones with boundary walls in isolated areas, to be used as quarantine centres, and all remainder non flood-prone schools to be converted to relief camps. Principals and headmasters became the ex-officio camp-in-charge and were trained. When a relief camp reached its maximum capacity, we ferried people on boats or vehicles to the next available earmarked centre.
Teachers of the schools functioning as camps had already been instructed to teach the children residing there, apart from counselling them to cope with the stress and anxiety induced by the multiple disasters. Social and emotional learning classes were organised by the administration, along with Utthan — a life skills development initiative for the students. The exercises included — ‘Act Your Dream’ and ‘Draw Your Dream’. To ensure the well-being of the younger children (0-6 years), ‘child-friendly spaces’ were made mandatory at each camp, aided by visits by Anganwadi workers.
All essential construction activities related to flood protection and restoration of connectivity were allowed to resume in the month of April itself, while ensuring Covid safety measures. Water/sanitation services through CSR equipped the Anganwadis with running water facilities. Highlands were utilised as farming grounds, and vacant plots as cultivating grounds for quick maturing paddy and fodder.
To ensure livelihood options to the returned migrant workers, job card application forms under MGNREGS were made available at the district entry screening point, and job cards were issued to over 1,041 applicants. This coupled with a skills mapping exercise will bolster livelihood and development options.
The Goalpara Covid story has been a saga of optimising limited resources, community engagement, building empathy and seamless convergence of departments. We even moved up the rank of Aspirational Districts from 80 to 22, during the course of the pandemic.
The author is an IAS officer and Deputy Commissioner of Goalpara district, Assam.
This article is part of the series ‘Districts Fight Covid’ that explores how India’s district magistrates and collectors have been fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Read all articles here.