Seeing how the coronavirus outbreak was getting worse in countries like Italy, USA, France, and Spain, the Khunti district administration in Jharkhand started preparations to curb the virus spread as early as the first week of March. Despite there not being a single Covid-19 case in Jharkhand, we were aware that a new crisis was knocking at our door. With our district’s experience in sailing through difficult situations before, I was optimistic, yet aware of the new challenges Covid-19 would bring.
One of our initial steps involved constituting teams in each village to enable active surveillance, reporting and awareness among people. This team comprised of Anganwadi and ASHA workers , auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs), the Sarpanch and civil society organisation (CSO) volunteers. Surveys to check the health status of people coming in from other regions, along with residents, have been conducted in two stages every fortnight, and reported to block and district level rapid response teams.
In March, the district team held a series of video conferences regarding various important state and central government schemes.We planned to start reducing the number of staff members coming in to work , set up norms for social distancing in meetings and video conferences, and initiated the use of thermal screening, sanitisation of hands at every entry point in our offices. With many other preliminary steps, we were ahead of many other districts in Jharkhand in our efforts to handle the Covid crisis.
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Plethora of challenges
Jharkhand’s Khunti district faced a plethora of challenges when the lockdown was declared. Covid-19 had brought in a crisis where lives of people were at stake, and their employment opportunities had been curtailed if not completely destroyed. The ignorance and lack of information about Covid-19 and its spread gave way to rumours and fear mongering. The district administration had to address these challenges with all its might.
Very early on, we called for an emergency meeting among officials to discuss a strategy to contain the disease and understand our present status of preparedness. This was a new kind of crisis, hence required meticulous planning and novel disaster-management ideas. We realised that the district was running short of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), masks and sanitisers, thus risking the health of the frontline workers. We also needed to arrange ventilators, fogging machines and hospital beds for symptomatic and asymptomatic cases to be quarantined.
People of the district were highly dependent on haats (local markets) and daily wage work for their income. We were also finding it hard to accommodate all patients in our district hospitals. We had limited supply of nutritious food at our quarantine centres. Most importantly, our staff lacked proper training in managing the essential requirements of our migrant workers – be it transport, food, testing, quarantine facilities or emotional well-being.
To address the twin challenges of health and economy, we had to ensure that our functionaries were able to reach the remotest districts and arrange financial support, meet the health infrastructure requirements, ensure daily food supply was taken care of, and most importantly, contain the spread of Covid-19.
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Financial and institutional convergence
During our early preparation, an initial survey of migrant workers who were outside the district was conducted. We prepared ourselves with food, logistics and transport facilities to bring home nearly 9,000 workers staying outside the district.
We arranged nine ventilators, finalised a model for our new Covid hospital, and set up rapid response teams at district, block and panchayat levels. Guidelines for ‘Janta Curfew’ were laid down, and borders of the district were sealed, except for essential activities.
Our plan was to work on a model that did not rely too heavily on state and central government funds. Given that this is an election year, we have been aware of pressure our state governments is facing. We decided to work on a convergence strategy with active participation of different stakeholders. Aspirational District Fellows placed by the MHA, in partnership with Tata Trusts, played an important role in planning our containment strategy, reaching out to organisations for humanitarian support, food supplies and medical protective gear. Our aim was to bring different people and resources together, and work in one direction with a single goal. The district administration would then be able to reach every individual in dire need of help.
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Local production of sanitisers and masks by Self Help Groups
To ensure that enough masks and sanitisers were made available in the district, the district decided to take help from the existing community institutions. Khunti has a large number of self-help groups and federations. Some of these institutions were already working in small scale businesses like lemon-grass oil, tulsi oil and tamarind processing. Lemon oil and tulsi are widely known for their medical benefits. Blending these oils with hand sanitiser, which had 72 per cent alcohol, was an idea that the district team came up with after consultations with a laboratory. On 25 March the responsibility to supply these sanitisers was given to Anigraha Gramin Seva Kendra. Since then, SHGs have made 3,000 liters of sanitisers, with a target to supply another 10,000 litres. In ten weeks, around 60,000 masks have been made by SHGs in Torpa, Khunti and Arki blocks of the district. These masks and sanitisers are now being used by our frontline workers, including health officials, police staff and individuals in need.
Dedicated Covid-19 hospital
The Khunti district administration decided to convert one polytechnic college into a full-fledged Covid-19 hospital, with a capacity to handle more than 500 people at a time. Till now, the recovery rate of the hospital has been more than 90 percent, with zero fatalities. The hospital’s food, sanitation and logistical arrangements were made a priority. Training health staff on how to protect themselves while managing Covid-19 patients has resulted in no infections till date among our health workers. Our health workers are regularly tested through True-Nat testing machines at the district level, and through two labs in Ranchi.
In the interior of Khunti, life came to a standstill after Covid-19 adversely affected the livelihood and mobility of most people. In terms of food supply, the administration focussed on the effective implementation of various schemes of the central and state government.
In the month of April and May, more than 5 lakh people were fed through Dal Rice centres in the district. The 74 existing CM Didi Kitchens were able to feed nearly 4.3 lakh people. To help distressed migrant workers and others whose livelihood had been affected, 7,346 aahar packets provided by the state government, that contained rice, pulses, edible oil, sugar, salt, potatoes etc have been distributed. Our volunteers ensured no-contact delivery of these essential items.
We ensured that all non-Public Distribution System (PDS) beneficiaries also received benefits. Between April and May, 15,292 non-card beneficiaries received 10 kg of rice each. Other schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), Antyodaya Anna Yojana, and schemes for the distribution of sugar, salt and kerosene oil also provided support.
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Gathering civil society support
Khunti district has an active presence of CSOs. In March, a meeting was called to gather support of volunteers from all the CSOs working in the district. The idea was to utilise their presence in the community, facilitate the effective use of our dedicated Covid-19 help centre, and provide support in terms of food, logistics, and information for the community. The district help centre functions like a call centre, where people’s queries are recorded and addressed by connecting to relevant government departments.
CSOs such as CINI-Tata Trusts, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra (NBJK), Plan India and Pradan have extended support by providing a list of volunteers. These volunteers serve as an extended arm of the administration to help implement containment strategies like door-to-door awareness campaigns.
Due to the lockdown, people were rendered immobile in remote rural areas, but we worked to supply food to every needy individual. A Khunti-based NGO, Sewa Welfare Society, along with PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), has a target of ensuring zero hunger and zero mortality, through its ‘Jeetenge hum’ initiative. They have distributed 900 quintals of rice in the district. Another NGO, Nav Bharat Jagriti Kendra (NBJK) has provided food supplies for 300 families, and conducted training in 141 revenue villages on awareness about social distancing and safe hygiene practices as per World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. CINI-Tata Trusts helped in translating the Information Education & Communication (IEC) and awareness material in local dialects such as Mundari language, and also created audio visual materials to build awareness about Covid, which was then circulated in villages.
Transforming Rural India Foundation (TRIF), with support of Tata Trusts, provided a kit consisting of 300 PPEs, and other protective gears such as N 95 Masks, protective gear for frontline workers, thermo scanner etc to the district.
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Corporate Social Responsibility in fight against Covid
The district administration has also made efforts towards convergence of support from Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) and NGOs outside the district. Numerous requests for ventilators, masks, sanitisers, fogging machines and food supplies were made. As a result, the administration has received 120 quintals of rice from Indian Oil Corporation Limited, 400 PPEs from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), one lakh biscuits packets from Parle Products, and financial assistance of Rs 5 lakhs from GAIL (Gas Authority of India Limited). Praveen Vasisth, Joint Secretary (LWE) Ministry of Home Affairs, as a Central Prabhari Officer in Khunti put in great efforts to mobilise CSR Funds for the district. As a result, we received a donation of Rs 50 lakh from Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd. (PGCIL). The Tata Trusts and Khunti’s district administration have partnered to construct a solar micro grid powered cold storage unit to preserving vegetables.
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Dedicated control room for agriculture marketing
Khunti is known for its watermelon cultivation, and last year we produced more than 4,000 tonnes, as it is a kind of zaid crop. of watermelon. During the pandemic, a large number of farmers were stuck with their crops as they were not able to sell in the market. During a visit to meet farmers and understand the major issues, the district administration decided to support the sale of watermelon by reaching out to buyers with the help of the agriculture department’s proactive efforts. The initiative has helped in re-establishing disrupted marketing linkages for farmers due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Till now, more than 100 such concerns plaguing farmers have been addressed across the district. Almost 47,900 quintal watermelon, 2,500 quintal of sweetcorn, and 8,500 quintals of vegetables have been sold through this initiative.
Currently, the district administration is equipping itself with the best of health facilities to contain the spread of Covid-19. There has been an influx of 13,697 migrant workers from across the country. All the workers coming from red zone areas have been put in institutional quarantine, and have been provided food and counselling. Out of a total of 31 positive cases and no symptomatic cases, 27 patients have been cured in the district.
In the first two phases of ‘Unlock India’, our focus is towards resuming essential livelihood work, along with proactive safety measures and awareness about following necessary social distancing norms. Our overall effort is towards achieving convergence of existing stakeholders, to equip the district with the required infrastructure, efficient utilisation of existing human resources and necessary training for better outcomes.
The author is the Deputy Commissioner of Khunti district, Jharkhand.
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.