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COVID-19: Sarpanch’s Squad Succeeds in Keeping Infection at Bay in Rajasthan Village

A Covid checkpoint manned by volunteers. (Pic courtesy Sohail Khan)

A Covid checkpoint manned by volunteers. (Pic courtesy Sohail Khan)

Assistance to those in need, a ban on gatherings, fines for superstitious practices and other such efforts prevent the spread of infection in Kaliyawas gram panchayat

Even as the second wave of COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in the rural areas of Rajasthan, where the state government has imposed a lockdown since May 24, a gram panchayat is drawing attention for its success in keeping the deadly virus at bay, with only four positive cases having been reported this year.

The credit for this feat in Kaliyawas gram panchayat in the Asind sub-division of Bhilwara district goes to a campaign launched by its sarpanch Shakti Singh (43) and his team of 100 youths. They are difficult to miss, they wear identical white t-shirts with Singh’s face splashed large on them. Singh is the district vice president of BJP and previously an office-holder in the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. He had unsuccessfully sought a ticket to contest from Asind in the previous assembly elections.

Sarpanch Shakti Singh in a briefing with his team of volunteers. (Pic courtesy Sohail Khan)

The volunteers are businessmen, farmers, teachers and even some government employees from the gram panchayat. The T-shirts, Singh said, are a kind of ‘curfew pass’ to differentiate them from others who are out and about. Those wearing the distinctive T-shirt are instantly recognised as people deputed for COVID-19 duty.

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Ever since the government imposed weekend curfews (Jan Anushasan Pakwada), the team has been working round the clock to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the gram panchayat which has three villages and 8,000 residents.

Singh and his volunteers, taking precautions such as wearing face masks and using sanitisers, conduct door-to-door surveys in the villages every day, spreading awareness among the residents about the guidelines for the prevention of COVID-19, reporting symptomatic cases to the district administration, maintaining records of the population and providing assistance to those in need.

Singh said, “So far we have been successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus in the gram panchayat. Only four persons have so far been tested positive for coronavirus in the entire area this year. The situation was worse last year with 54 persons contracting the infection.”

The sarpanch said he and three other members of his family were among those infected last year and had stayed in home isolation for more than 15 days. “We somehow survived and that was when I decided to do whatever I can to protect the people of our villages from contracting the infection,” he said.

Anti-corona squad

Asked about the campaign to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the villages, Singh said, “We have formed five-member teams of volunteers. Each team is assigned particular tasks such as patrolling the boundaries of the gram panchayat in eight-hour shifts to prevent people from entering the villages without health checkups and ensuring that the villagers strictly follow guidelines issued by the government, including that of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.”

A Covid checkpoint to ensure that those entering the village are masked and don’t show signs of infection. (Pic courtesy Sohail Khan)

The volunteers also prevent more than three persons from entering the temples at a time and more than four people attending funerals in the event of deaths in the villages. They also ensure that people handling the dead bodies wear PPT kits.

Singh has also converted his car into an ambulance to transport infected persons in case of an emergency and his farmhouse into a quarantine centre for people who have contracted virus but lack enough space for isolation at their homes. He has created a WhatsApp Group comprising the volunteers, gram sevaks, health workers and other important functionaries to ease communication and making decisions.

Besides arranging for medical equipment such as oximeters and thermal scanners, the volunteers distribute face masks and sanitisers free of cost to the residents in all wards of the gram panchayat.

Whether it is arranging food for the needy, coordinating the medical staff, or ensuring that the people practice social distancing, Singh has become the go-to person for everything related to the pandemic crisis management in the gram panchayat.

The volunteers also discourage villagers from venturing out of their houses unnecessarily and gathering in public places. They have smeared benches installed near public places such as Panchayat Bhavan, Tehsil Office and parks with oil and black paint to prevent people from sitting on them for gossip and started imposing Rs 500-fines on people indulging in public smoking.

An isolation ward in Kaliyawas village meant for those who can’t quarantine at home, manned by volunteers. (Pic courtesy Kshitiz Gaur)

Singh said the volunteers were also lending their services to villages adjacent to Kailyas gram panchayat. He said that when a COVID-19 patient died recently in Jetpura area of the nearby Paldi gram panchayat, the volunteers helped in cremating the body following pandemic-related protocols, as the relatives of the deceased were living in Bengaluru and could not arrive because of the lockdown.

Fear of vaccination side-effects

Singh said the biggest challenge was to convince the people to take vaccines against coronavirus. He said that initially, the people were afraid that the vaccines could cause side-effects and might even lead to death. He said that in order to set an example and mitigate the people’s fear, he and his family members took the vaccination shots first and it encouraged many villagers to receive the vaccine.

“We motivate the people by saying that the persons who follow government guidelines will get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and those who flout them will have to face social boycott in their villages. Our efforts brought results and many people are now enthusiastically coming forward to join our campaign,” Singh said.

A sign warning that outsiders caught within village limits will be fined Rs 5,000. (Pic courtesy Kshitiz Gaur)

Hurdle of superstition

Singh, who is a graduate, also took steps to stop superstitions coming in the way of preventing the spread of coronavirus infection. He has declared Rs 5,000-fine on people resorting to superstitious practices such as black magic or approaching quacks for treatment of the COVID-19.

His teams of volunteers have also been making daily announcements in every colony of the villages, urging people to desist from superstitious practices and instead, seek medical help in the event of infection. “A team of doctors is visiting the villages every day. People are urged to consult the medical staff in case of any health issue,” said Singh.

Bhilwara District Collector Shiv Prasad M Nakate has hailed Singh’s campaign model against the spread of coronavirus and said, “The state government encourages involvement of public representatives in the fight against coronavirus. Those working at grassroots levels, especially sarpanchs, have helped our gram panchayat-level core committees to ensure compliance with the COVID-19–related guidelines issued by the state government by helping in enforcing containment zones, door-to-door health surveys, medicine kit distribution and vaccination drives. Shakti Singh has contributed significantly in this struggle.”

— With inputs from Kshitiz Gaur

(The author is Udaipur-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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first published:June 27, 2021, 09:00 IST