In July 2020, during the first wave of the novel coronavirus in the state, there were only around 130 COVID-19 cases reported from tribal communities in Kerala. But till May 31, 2021, as many as 17,400 people from tribal communities have reportedly tested positive as of May 30. In June and July, the cases increased further.
During the first wave, many of the tribal hamlets were closed and nobody from outside was allowed to enter. In hamlets like the Muthuvan tribesâ€™ Edamalakkudy in Munnar and Kuttambuzha of Ernakulam district, the communities banned the entry of outsiders as well as maintained strict quarantine. But during the second wave the scenario changed. In May 2021, the test positivity rate (TPR) in Kuttambuzha was nearly 65%. Many other tribal hamlets, especially in northern Kerala, suffered a similar plight in the months of April, May and June this year. The infection spread was high in the tribal hamlets of Wayanad, Kannur and Kasaragod districts in the month of May. There were days on which the TPR climbed to more than 50%.
The tribal hamlets of Achanelly, Avilattu, Anakkadu, Kadavayal, Kozhinjangadu, etc. in Wayanad district became COVID-19 clusters in April end. In May, many other hamlets such as Kaniyampatta, Vythiri, Chullivayal, Ambalanadu, Naloornad, etc. turned into clusters. By the third week of May, more than 1,500 tribal people in the district tested positive. The number further increased by the end of May and in June, but later the TPR dipped. During the first wave in 2020, the total tribal cases did not cross 1,000 in Wayanad (in a year), said health officials.
Speaking to TNM, Wayanad District Medical Officer Dr R Renuka said, â€śIn the first wave we were able to control the spread, as a result there were not that many cases. After that the rules were relaxed, and just like in other places the infection started spreading among the tribal communities too. What we mainly did was to shift people testing positive to domiciliary care centres (DCC), we did not allow home quarantine.â€ť
Similarly in Kannur and Kasaragod districts there were a number of clusters in May and June. In Peravoor, Kottiyam, Kelakam, Kanichar, Aralam and many more colonies of Kannur, the spread was rapid. The Aralam region is still a hotspot and the TPR remains more than 15%.
â€śAmong the 85 people in our settlement, 39 tested positive in May end. In June first week, another 16 were infected. However, there were no major symptoms or health complications,â€ť Raju, a Paniya, tribal leader from Kottiyam, said.
Another community head Prabhakaran, from the Malavettuvan tribe in Kasaragodâ€™s Kalliyottu, said that 85 out of the 150 people in their settlement tested positive in May. â€śThere was a major spread in Kalliyottu, at one time a majority of the hamlet tested positive,â€ť he said.
Tribals in Kerala lead a community life, which can contribute to the COVID-19 spread. â€śIn Wayanad, the spread among tribal people was majorly due to gatherings for funerals, weddings, etc. for which people would visit other colonies,â€ť DMO Renuka said. Some of the funerals became super spreaders in the district.
Prabhakaran said that if one or two turned positive in a colony then the infection would surely be passed on to many others as the community always remains in close contact. â€śChildren would move around, elders cannot keep away from work, they visit other colonies frequently, so the virus remains here like a cycle,â€ť he said.
C Manikandan, a teaching assistant at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University and a Masterâ€™s in Business Administration graduate from Wayanadâ€™s Paniya tribal community, said that while talking about COVID-19 management among tribal communities various other factors have to be addressed.
â€śWhen someone tests positive, only that person is taken to the DCC. Most families live in a two-room house. There is no facility for them to quarantine themselves, as there is no door between the rooms which are separated only by curtains. Usually there is just one bathroom, and not even enough space for them to move around inside the house,â€ť he said.
He also pointed out that more than two families live in many of these tiny houses because some of them donâ€™t have a proper house. â€śMany of the houses in the colonies are leaking. I know families who spend nights sitting on chairs holding their children, as their houses are leaking,â€ť he said.
â€śOur homes are built close to each other in a small area, just like match box houses. Also, community life is the norm among tribes, so the spread is easy,â€ť he added.
He added that tribal people cannot remain at home as they have to go out to look for work or food. â€śWe appreciate that the government provides food kits, but the lentils we get is not part of our food culture. How long can we be forced to eat it? We never buy lentils in our daily groceries. We mainly depend on vegetables and tubers. So people would obviously go out to earn that,â€ť he said.
He also points out that similar is the case with online classes for students. â€śThe government is trying to come up with more devices to curb the digital divide, but there are many here who donâ€™t even know about online classes. They require good mentors at the time of this pandemic,â€ť he said.
No symptoms, less complications
Many of the tribal hamlets said that patients showed very few symptoms and complications. â€śMany of them didnâ€™t even have a cold, just their test returned positive. For that reason, they took it lightly and didnâ€™t take enough care,â€ť said Prabhakaran.
Manikandan also confirmed that many from the tribal communities showed little to no symptoms. â€śCould be because of the lifestyle, but itâ€™s a fact that complications are fewer among us. This should be studied, only then we can explain it scientifically,â€ť he said.