A cloth banner flaps in the wind outside the off-lying Hithul village in Chhattisgarh. It carries a message: “Corona ke karan bahari vyakti pravesh nishedh (Due to corona, entry of outsiders is prohibited)".
Locals have tried to block the access road using anything they could lay their hands on: wooden logs, large rocks, blocks of cement, barbed wire, prickly bushes, old tires, and ropes. They have set up temporary check posts and are not allowing outsiders to enter the village. Local residents who go out to work have to remain on the outskirts.
Scores of Covid-19 cases have been reported in many parts of the state, particularly in urban areas where people live and work in close proximity. In tribal regions, however, there’s not been an explosion of the pandemic, despite the lack of medical infrastructure. The state’s Covid-19 count rose to 9,71,463 on Monday with the addition of 2,163 fresh cases, while the death toll increased to 13,048 after 32 more patients succumbed to the infection, an official said.
In Chhattisgarh, in blocks like Orchha, even minor health problems force people to walk long distances. And Covid has taken its toll. There have been news reports on Adivasis seen carrying pregnant women or other ailing family members on their shoulders in search of medical aid.
The Bastar division of Chhattisgarh is the stronghold of tribals who constitute about 70% of the total population. Tribal communities here have uneven living conditions, and some are better connected and equipped than others.
Administrators and social scientists say that many sub-communities within tribal populations have a certain lifestyle in which they traditionally maintain distance from others.
The houses and fields of the communities living in the hilly and forest areas are significantly separated from one another.
Santram Bhaskar, a member of the awareness team of Bhansi Panchayat, said that there is vaccine hesitancy, but after counselling many people have consented.
Sarpanch Raju Kalmu of Gangalur village in Bijapur district told News18 that at this time of the year, thousands of people from the districts of the Bastar division go to the borders of nearby Telangana and Andhra Pradesh to work in the chilli farms there. “Due to the lockdown, hundreds of labourers had returned to their villages," he said.
18-year-old local resident Ramesh said he came to know about the pandemic when the school closed. “Then I heard about Covid-19 on the radio. After that we told the people of our village about it too," he said. “This time is precious for us because we collect some money for ourselves from forest produce, tamarind, mahua, amchur and tendu patta and get ration. At this time, some leeway has been received from the district so that we can sell our forest produce. The people living in the Handwara hill areas have homes at the top which allows them privacy and they are also able to take care of their farms in the foothills. They have very little contact with the outside world due to their living situation."
As the virus is still spreading, government officials and rural healthcare workers are trying to raise awareness and ensure vaccination. People are asked to be vigilant and motivated to get tested if symptoms show.
Chikpal panchayat Anganwadi activist Sarita Baghel, who has been working in this hilly region of Sukma district for 27 years now, says due to facilities like cellphone radio, people have become more aware and they themselves are coming to get vaccinated.
Kiran Kumittee, who is a healthcare worker in Dhanora panchayat, which has a population of about 3,000, says she is in regular contact with the staff at the nearest primary health centre (PHC), about 50 km from the district Narayanpur. “When I identify a person suffering from fever, first of all I ask that person to isolate. I then alert the health workers who arrange the tests at the PHC," she said.
A large number of Covid cases have been reported in urban areas like Bijapur, Jagdalpur, etc, while remote parts such as Rekavaya and Kutul have remained comparatively safer, say officials.
Prakash Thakur, president of the tribal organisation Sarva Adivasi Samaj, said, “Even today, some villagers of Bastar are following their culture and old traditions and maintaining social distancing. People of our society are being given information in their own language about Covid."
Dantewada district collector Deepak Soni said awareness teams have been formed in every panchayat. “These teams keep constant watch on issues of testing and vaccination," he said. “People are motivated through counselling. The first dose of vaccination has been completed 100 per cent for people over 45 years of age and an oxygen generation plant has been started in the district. The capacity of this plant is 260 litres per minute."