The village which saw a number of families leave after the first case of Nipah was reported is now at a standstill.

Ground report Desertions a slow fight to regain normalcy in Kerala village at heart of Nipah VirusPTI Image
news Nipah virus Tuesday, May 29, 2018 - 11:27

Walking around Perambra, in Kerala’s Kozhikode district, it is now common sight to see people wearing a mask or covering their nose and mouth using a handkerchief. From the passengers on buses, two-wheeler riders, and even auto rickshaw drivers, the light blue mask has now become a necessity for anyone venturing out of their homes. The fear of contracting Nipah virus, which has claimed 14 lives in the state, has gripped this quaint village.

A bus stop in Sooppikkada

Sameer is an auto rickshaw driver who is one of people who has stopped wearing the mask, to protect himself from contracting the virus.

"All of us wore the mask for around two weeks and now I have stopped it. I occasionally wear it. I think the risk period is over," Sameer says.

As he drives to Sooppikkada village in Changaroth Panchayat, where four members of a family died from the fever leading to the outbreak, he points to an unpainted house down a narrow, untarred lane.

Moosa's house is Sooppikkada

The now-closed house belonged to 60-year-old Moosa, who had lived there with his three sons and wife. On May 5, his son Sadik died after suffering from a fever. On May 18, his other son Salih too died after experiencing the same symptoms. His sister-in-law died on May 19 and six days later on May 24, Moosa too passed away.

Closed houses

After the tragic death of four members of her family, Moosa's wife shifted to her brother's house a few kilometers away, along with her youngest son.

However, Moosa's house is not the only one in the locality which has remained closed.

A number of families in the neighbourhood have temporarily relocated to other places; some women have gone back to their maternal homes taking their children along with them, while others have shifted into the houses of their relatives.

The closed doors and locked gates only added to the grim feeling lurking in the air.

45-year-old Nafeesa lives in the house right next door to Moosa's, a short brick wall separates her compound from his. She leans against the wall and looks at the empty house.

Out of the houses of 20 families living in the neighbourhood (including Moosa's), 3 had been vacant for years. Now, her family is one of the few to have stayed back, while most others have moved to places they believed to be safer, Nafeesa stated.

Nafeesa

In spite of the fears running high in the locality, Nafeesa, her husband Muhammad, and their two children have not moved out yet. Not that they do not worry that they might contract the virus, but because she feels that God will be kind to her family.

"When the first death happened, all of us went to their home. At the time we didn't know that he had died of Nipah. His body was bathed in the compound, people went to see the body and it was buried in our masjid 15 kilometers away," Nafeesa says.

However, when the second death happened, alarm bells rang not only for the Kerala Health Department, but also for the families living in the locality.

"People started going away all of a sudden. They picked up their kids and left. Some have started coming back because they feel things have more or less settled down now, 2 to 3 families across the road came back just two days ago,” Nafeesa adds.

Ramla and her mother Kunjali were busy washing utensils under a tap outside their house, when TNM enquired about the situation.

Moosa was Ramla's maternal uncle and her house is adjacent to Moosa's with not even so much as a compound wall separating the two properties.

Ramla

Ramla and her mother now live in the ancestral house a few yards away, after the deaths in the family.

"Look around, you won't see one person in this locality. Everyone has gone with their parents and kids. We too, have. We have just come back to this house to wash clothes. After that we will go back to our ancestral house, nobody is living here now," Ramla says.

Ravitha lives nearly a kilometer away from Moosa's neighborhood and says that her family chose not to move out.

A school teacher at a government mentioned school in Paleri, she abstained from attending a teachers' meeting on Monday, so that her colleagues did not feel uncomfortable.

"A lot of people have left the place in the past few days. A friend of mine who lives near Moosa's house returned two days back, but not many have. People are scared, to venture out, to take the bus or even to go to the nearby shop. When we called for a maid to clean the compound she declined to come citing the fear of Nipah. When she heard the work was in Sooppikkada, she bailed out. I haven't attended the school meeting because I understand that other teachers who come from elsewhere may be concerned about everyone's well being. So it's better if I stay away from this meeting," Ravitha explains.

The uncertainty

For Narayanan, a retired government school teacher and a social worker, the uncertainty over what caused the sudden outbreak is frustrating.

"The uncertainty and lack of answers is adding to the fear. If people don't know what caused it, then how will they know what to look out for? They took samples of bats and pigs and other animals, but the tests turned negative. Now how many more days do we have to wait?" Narayanan asks, adding that he will never "flee", no matter what.

Narayanan

It is a similar with Nafeesa and Ramla, the need for answers is making things difficult for them.

"A lot of people ate food from Moosa's house when his son died. Nobody then knew about Nipah. All of us went there. But Moosa's wife and their one son are safe, they haven't contracted the disease despite having had close contact with the deceased. What explains that?" Nafeesa says.

Ramla cannot fathom that bats, which have always been rampant in the area, could be carriers of the virus.

"Bats have been here for so many years and people have even been eating them for ages. So what caused the sudden outbreak?" she questions.

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