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Tearfund warns of rural disaster in India as Covid variant sweeps the country

14 May 2021

Aid agency deplores shortage of medical facilities in rural areas


Family members mourn a Covid-19 victim on the banks of the Ganges at Phaphamau ghat, in Prayagraj, on Saturday

Family members mourn a Covid-19 victim on the banks of the Ganges at Phaphamau ghat, in Prayagraj, on Saturday

A LARGELY unseen disaster is sweeping across rural India as Covid-19 cases spread and there is little or no access to medical treatment or vaccinations, Tearfund has warned.

The country is battling a second wave, reaching a new high of 414,000 new Covid cases each day of last week, with more than 4000 deaths each day (News, 7 May). Shortages of medical oxygen in the capital, Delhi, have eased slightly, but other cities are now experiencing shortages, and, in rural areas, with poor medical facilities, “a disaster is rolling out,” Tearfund’s country director for India, Prince David, said.

Nearly 70 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion population live in rural areas. Tearfund is supporting labourers who have previously had to leave their homes in rural areas and travel to cities to find work, but were forced to return home at the start of the first lockdown. They are now penniless, hungry, and desperate.

Mr David said: “There is a disaster rolling out, and it is not getting the same level of attention as the cities are receiving. Communities we are working with in rural areas are migrant labourers, or landless labourers who had to leave to find labour to feed their families. Last year, when the cities shut down in the first wave, they had to come back to their families, as they had no job security. They left their families in despair and distress, and they returned even more desperate.

“What we see on the news — people in cities dying due to the lack of oxygen, vaccines, and hospital beds — is a tragedy. Away from the cities and the cameras, Covid-19 is exacerbating an unseen disaster in rural communities.

“There is a vast expanse of people not only fighting the risk of the coronavirus, with no access to medical care or vaccines, but also struggling just to put enough food on the table for their families. People are dying in their homes, unnoticed.”

The charity is handing out vouchers and cash to the most needy, but it is also continuing its work to support long-term economic growth, through improving farming techniques and building better water facilities.

This week, dozens of bodies have been found floating in the River Ganges, some partially burned. Tests are being carried out to discover the cause of death. In some areas, villagers have reportedly run out of wood to cremate their dead, and are putting them rivers instead.

The country has so far had more than 240,000 deaths from Covid-19, but this is almost certainly an underestimate, experts believe.

India’s vaccine rollout is under way, but it is slow, and, in rural areas, people have to walk miles to get vaccinated. So far, about ten per cent of India’s population have received one jab, and only 2.5 per cent have received two. Daily vaccination rates have been tailing off in recent weeks.

Many regions have imposed local lockdowns of varying strictness, but there has been criticism of the government for failing to impose a national lockdown.

Mr David said that the blame should be shared by everyone: “We let our guard down; we all have to take responsibility for that. Now, we are losing our friends and family and experiencing Covid in a personal way. Grief is now our portion — hopes abides, but grief has become very personal.

“It is happening constantly, it is relentless. Very few hours go by before hearing of someone dying or in a critical condition. I’ve been in disaster response for 25 years, and experienced some terrible major disasters, but in this one, we are never sure and feel totally helpless. It is relentless.”

Public Health concern. The new variant of Covid first discovered in India has now been branded a variant “of concern” by Public Health England. The variant is highly transmissible and is believed to be spreading fast in parts of the UK, particularly the north-west. There is as yet little data to suggest whether the vaccination programme will be effective against the new Indian variant.

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