A 23-YEAR-OLD spent three days under a banyan tree outside his village in Kalahandi because there was no provision for isolation in his small, thatched home. A 48-year-old struggled for 48 hours to save his mother’s life in Bargarh but failed for want of an official letter. At a hospital in Jharsuguda, a security guard is the key contact for families outside and Covid patients inside.
These snapshots from the last five days tell the story of how rural districts on Odisha’s western border with Chhattisgarh, which has been ravaged by the virus, have struggled to combat the second wave with limited resources and inadequate manpower.
On Tuesday, Odisha decided to set up checkposts in the southern districts bordering Andhra Pradesh and Telangana following reports of a new virulent variant. It said that all travellers from the two states via road or rail have to undergo institutional quarantine of 14 days, except those with RT-PCR negative reports within 48 hours of entry or vaccination certificates who can undergo seven days of home quarantine.
But voices from at least four districts bordering Chhattisgarh point to a larger challenge in that stretch.
On April 30, the condition of Durga Prasad’s 73-year-old mother, a Covid patient confined to her home in Bargarh, started deteriorating. She was taken to the district hospital, then to a Covid care centre, and back to the hospital as her oxygen level fluctuated.
“On May 1, I spoke to her at 8.30 pm, my mother was doing well,” said Prasad. Before midnight on May 2, she was dead.
“That morning, I got a call that she needed ventilator support. There were no ventilator beds available in Bargarh, but a hospital in (neighbouring) Sambalpur had 20. To shift her from Bargarh, I needed a letter from the district administration. I tried my best, but the letter never came,” Prasad said.
Odisha has witnessed a spike in cases over the last two months — from 2,129 cases in February to 4,741 in March and 1,26,148 in April. On Tuesday, it logged 8,216 new cases. Currently, there are 73,538 active cases, and the rural districts (25 of 30) account for 44,173, or nearly 60 per cent, of them.
Apart from Bargarh, officials and doctors point out to at least three other districts — Nuapada, Jharsuguda and Kalahandi — among the seven bordering Chhattisgarh where the crisis of resources is acute.
Odisha has 76 Covid hospitals, including 14 districts with one each, nine with two, and one (Gajapati) with 3. However, records show that of the 2,340 Covid beds available in the state, only 340, or barely 13 per cent, are available in the rural districts.
For example, Bargarh is No.4 on its list of districts having active cases with 3,604 on May 3 — after Khurda (12,616), Sundargarh (6,800 and Cuttack (4,975). Yet, records show the district has only 100 beds, 8 ICU beds and 9 ventilators. On Monday, the Bargarh town crematorium laid to rest seven bodies as per the Covid protocol — the official toll so far is 44, including two in April.
“A large part of the population here have cultural, economic and social ties with villages, towns and cities in Chhattisgarh. A lot of people travel to Raipur, which is the closest big city, for business or work,” a Health official said. Chhattigarh, which had less than 5,000 active cases in the middle of February, now has 1,20,977.
When contacted, Professor Jayant Panda, technical advisor to the Odisha government on Covid management, said the state is “prepared to handle” the rural surge and is bringing the situation under control.
“Two major factors contributed. One, the surge in the neighbouring state and lack of Covid-appropriate behaviour by residents here. We have sent doctors from the eastern districts and deployed senior officers. We are ramping up infrastructure as well. More beds will be added, as and when needed. There has been no shortage of medicines or oxygen, and most cases in these places are mild,” he said.
“In severe cases, due to lack of awareness, patients tend to come to the hospital at a later stage, when their health has deteriorated. This puts pressure on the health infrastructure,” he said.
In Kalahandi last week, the family of 23-year-old Khirod Nayak says he spent three days under the tree before being taken to a dedicated Covid hospital Monday. “He was advised home isolation at the district headquarters, where he was tending to his ailing mother. But we have a small, thatched house for five of us, including our father. There is no provision for isolation. So he decided to stay under the tree,” Nayak’s younger brother, Bijay, said.
Nayak was moved to a Covid hospital after officials were alerted. “We have moved him to the hospital,” said Manisha Das, Block Development Officer.
With a population of 16 lakh, Kalahandi recorded 5,480 cases in April and is the only district in the state to have reported a positivity rate over 60 per cent. It has one Covid hospital with 94 beds, including six ICU beds.
Close to Bargarh, meanwhile, Jharsuguda added 5,764 cases last month, 17 per cent more than its peak last year. The district has a total capacity of 120 Covid beds and 20 ICU beds. But outside the lone Covid hospital, a security guard conveys health updates of patients.
“We admitted my mother-in-law on Friday. It’s only after 7-8 calls throughout the day to the control room that they inform us about her health. Otherwise, it’s the security guard who tells us whether she is doing fine or not,” said Mrutyanjay Bag. “As per the last update, her oxygen level has dropped to 66.”