“They are your neighbours. If something happens to you, they will be first to come and help you. Besides, we will also be there for you. If you need anything, please call us,” Sameer Ali K, a police officer from Palakkad district of Kerala, can be seen patiently explaining to an elderly woman in a video that has gone viral.
In the video, the police officer is seen allaying the woman’s fears over her neighbour who returned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is in quarantine at his home in Thrithala village.
“Your neighbour had been working as a driver abroad. You saw how small his house is. That is what he earns despite working so hard. People abroad adjust themselves in a single room. If somebody tests positive for coronavirus, they arrange a cot in one corner of the room while others sleep in the other corner. Here, we have separate houses. This person will be inside his small house. If he breaks his quarantine period, we are here to look after that," Sameer told the woman, addressing her ‘amma’. He stressed that the virus will spread only through direct contact, by using the articles an infected person has used or through respiratory droplets while coughing or sneezing.
This is just one of the instances where officials have had to deal with residents who are anxious that their foreign-returned neighbours will ‘infect’ them as well. According to the field workers, comprising police officers and health workers, residents want such international and domestic passengers to opt for institutional quarantine instead of home quarantine.
Jijomon, the Thrithala police officer who shot the viral video, told TNM that they get many calls every day, where residents — especially senior citizens and families with children at home — express concerns over foreign returnees.
“They mostly call us when they get information that their NRI (non-resident Indian) neighbours are coming back to Kerala. We then go to the neighbourhood and make sure the returnee has the facility or ideal environment to stay in home quarantine. Once that is taken care, the next step is convincing these anxious neighbours. We assure them that we will take care if the person breaks quarantine. We also explain how the virus spreads to clear all misconceptions," said Jijo.
The Thrithala police are also in the process of making a documentary to shed more light on these misconceptions and fears.
A Janamaithri (people-friendly) beat police officer from the northern part of Kerala recalled how he and one of his colleagues, along with an ASHA (accredited social health activist) worker, had visited a house many times, just to convince the family that their neighbour, who is in quarantine, will not bring them any harm.
“In fact, they started calling the police even before their neighbour came back from Dubai. They were an elderly couple. We, along with an ASHA worker and some health workers, went there and convinced them that they will be safe. Once the person from Dubai arrived in Kerala, the family kept calling us, complaining that the person in the quarantine peeped through his window, the water from his bathroom is flowing towards their house and more. Each time, we could only convince them by patiently repeating what we have already told them about how the virus spreads,” the city police officer said.
A police officer from Kasaragod district, Praveen Kumar, said that giving awareness to neighbours is an important step in the whole effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“People call us regularly with a lot of doubts. We, as a team of police and health officials, visit their houses, and many in cases, have had to repeatedly convince these residents. We try to instil a sense of confidence in them that the Janamaithri police will be with them,” said Praveen, sharing a recent experience.
“A few days ago, we got a call from a person, who complained that his neighbour, who returned from Mumbai, was frequently getting out of his room. When we visited the Mumbai returnee’s house, we found that there were small children and aged parents at his house. So we convinced him to shift to a quarantine centre. Since he did not have money for paid quarantine, some residents helped raise some funds for this. They also arranged his food from a restaurant nearby. With this, the neighbours were happy that we intervened following their complaint, and even the person's family was also at ease," he explained.
An ASHA worker from Pathanamthitta said that there are incidents where people spread rumours that Gulf returnees are infected with the novel coronavirus. “In May, a person went into home quarantine on returning from abroad via the repatriation flight. Although he tested negative, rumours had started already started spreading that he is infected, because he is a foreign-returnee. His family was soon ostracised. Residents in the neighbourhood started treating the man’s mother indifferent, even after his 14-day quarantine period," she recounted.
“It took us weeks but we spoke to a host of residents in the area to convince them that the man does not have COVID-19 and that disease will not spread if the person is in quarantine at his house,” said the ASHA worker.
Meanwhile, student police cadets are also assigned to the task to spread awareness against ostracising individuals and families who were in quarantine or have recovered.
Annamma, a 75-year-old woman from Thaliparamba of Kannur district, said a team of police and health workers had visited their house a couple of times to ensure that they are secure. “Our neighbour was in quarantine. So the police, an ASHA worker and some others had come to tell us about the disease and how it spreads, and to assure me and my husband that there was nothing to be worried about," she said.
According to an ASHA worker from Kasaragod district, such fears have even led to enmity between neighbours. “Two families in a neighbourhood in Kasaragod were close to each other until a member from one of the families came back from Dubai and went into quarantine. The families started arguing even before the NRI reached home, with the other family insisting that he opt for institutional quarantine,” she recalled, adding that it was tough to convince the family that the NRI had the facility at his house to undergo safe quarantine.
However, there are exceptions, the ASHA worker told TNM. There are many residents who regularly provide food to their quarantined neighbours.
“For example, recently, a person who flew from Dubai came home and went into quarantine. Since his wife was pregnant, she went to her parents’ house. It was the man’s neighbours who provided him with food for 14 days," she explained, adding, “Not all of them have prejudices against their NRI neighbours.”