The nationwide coronavirus lockdown, as it were, stands extended until 3 May. India, which began with a conservative sample testing policy and a glaring lack of medical facilities, stands at the crossroads today: it can either set an example with its relatively low number of positive coronavirus cases so far or risk letting the numbers rise exponentially.
Despite the humanitarian efforts of individuals in pockets and moving speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a heavily hit informal sector remains a reality that India cannot afford to look away from.
Although India has firmly placed itself as a strong exception to the coronavirus story around the world with its early lockdown, containment remains an obvious challenge, and timing and information are of importance.
While metropolitans like Mumbai, Jaipur, Chennai, Delhi, Agra and Indore are significantly hit, a story from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh has gone unnoticed, rather unfairly.
Turning the clock back
Jabalpur saw its first coronavirus cases — four people testing Covid-19 positive — on 20 March, which were also Madhya Pradesh’s first. Cut to 19 April, and Jabalpur still only has 20 coronavirus positive patients and has not reported a single death. During the same period, Madhya Pradesh has reported a total of 1,407 Covid-19 cases with 72 deaths so far.
Considering the surge we now see in Covid-19 cases all over India and in cities with a population similar to Jabalpur, the city’s turnaround story is remarkable.
What Jabalpur did right
Jabalpur set a trajectory different from others by going into a lockdown four days before the rest of India did on 24 March. Schools, colleges, bus stations and markets were closed just as news of the first cases poured in on 20 March. Setting an example of truly remarkable inter-departmental coordination, Jabalpur district magistrate Bharat Yadav and superintendent of police Amit Singh imposed a strict ban on activities, coupling it with a carefully curated economic support strategy.
Jabalpur’s Smart City Integrated Command and Control Centre (ICCC) was turned into a ‘corona war room’ with more than 100 operators answering calls on dedicated helpline numbers that were set up for any early reports of potential symptoms. While the task of how to draft social distancing policies was being given a final shape, advanced contract tracing mechanisms were put in place to identify areas that could be potential hotspots. It is to the merit of this containment planning that Jabalpur became an exception in Madhya Pradesh with no rise in coronavirus cases for about two weeks. These cordoned areas under strict monitoring for about a month pushed the spread back, resulting in a remarkable stagnation in the number of positive cases.
To address the economic downturn, the Jabalpur administration turned the ‘work from home’ policy into a ‘produce from home’ policy with self-help groups (SHGs) and the city’s garment clusters being made to timely manufacture and supply masks. Under this ‘produce from home’ initiative, the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) self-help groups supplied more than 70,000 masks so far. This ensured a much-needed continued source of income and helped close the demand supply gap of masks in the Jabalpur district. Efforts are now underway to better the district’s mask production capacity to reach at least ten times the current capacity.
Receiving all-round help
Authorities grew more confident in their handling as timely help came in from public representatives. Lok Sabha MP Rakesh Singh and Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha’s development funds (under MPLAD) were employed to procure medical supplies like Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and thermal scanners. Similarly, Ajay Vishnoi, an MLA from Jabalpur’s rural belt Patan, helped fill the gaps in food distribution by timely informing the district administration of any deficiencies.
The effects of the virus aside, the balance of trends is shifting. It helps that individuals like Sudhir Kumar Mishra, director general, DRDO, and CEO & MD, BrahMos Aerospace, have also underlined their support to the cause. BrahMos Aerospace, making use of its CSR fund, sent 500 PPEs, 2,500 N-95 masks and other essential equipment to Jabalpur, Mishra’s hometown.
Groups like Madhya Pradesh Association of Women Entrepreneurs (MAWE) helped provide surface cleaners and sanitisers to control the coronavirus. In addition to the beneficiaries of PM Jan Dhan Yojana and Ujjwala Yojana receiving advanced sums, the district administration provided untied food grain stocks to community kitchens supplying food to migrant labourers and residents who are not covered in other government schemes.
Amid risks of patients facing alienation and incidents of shaming, Jabalpur managed to successfully pitch a compassionate outlook with the message that people were required to come together in a national effort. A campaign was launched to garner donations towards the cause, and the district has so far been able to collect more than Rs 1 crore. About 90 NGOs are working with 55 government food camps to provide daily meals to 85,000 people. The Jabalpur police department also runs a mobile cafeteria vehicle to give out food packets to police personnel on duty.
Spreading a success story
As of today, Jabalpur aims to increase its testing capacity, and prepare itself for phased relaxations. Even in the time of a political upheaval that Madhya Pradesh recently saw, it is really to the bureaucracy’s credit that districts in the state, particularly Jabalpur, have managed to hold up well and also rope in civil society for a deeper participation.
The scale of the coronavirus spread remains erratic and any attempt to make conclusive remarks on the pattern of the spread will only disappoint. Accusations of overreach abound, and states are bound to find the exit from this lockdown more challenging than its imposition. At such a time, examples of Jabalpur, Pathanamthitta (Kerala) and Bhilwara (Rajasthan) should be seen as lessons for the future course of action in the wider region. While its low number of positive Covid-19 cases might have kept Jabalpur from making national headlines so far, the success of its coronavirus containment is a story that deserves every bit of traction it stands to gain in days to come.
The author is a policy analyst. Views are personal.