As positivity rates rise in rural Tamil Nadu, it is imperative that the government focuses on containing the spread of the virus, writes Gurusaravanan M.

Row of woman standing, faces covered following social distancingIMAGE FOR REPRESENTATION/PTI
Voices COVID-19 Monday, May 24, 2021 - 14:43

The deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading rapidly to various rural parts of our country and Tamil Nadu is no exceptions. While a full lockdown has been announced in the state, in the last few weeks, the positivity rate in many districts of Tamil Nadu had increased beyond 20%, especially in rural parts of Krishnagiri, Virudhunagar, Cuddalore, and Nagapattinam. In this scenario, it is imperative that the state government focus more on containing the spread of the virus in rural areas.

With regards to this, let us see some of the initiatives taken by various other states in the country to combat COVID-19 in rural areas, which could be implemented in Tamil Nadu:

In Karnataka, panchayat level task forces have been created in every gram panchayat wherein different volunteer organisations, women’s groups and self-help groups are included to tackle the spread of COVID-19 in rural areas. Furthermore, village-level task forces have been constituted to contain the spread of the virus, as well.

In Kerala, panchayat level war rooms have been set up to contain COVID-19 in rural areas. The local self-governing bodies collaborate with volunteers, neighbourhood youth groups and have adopted a decentralised disaster governance structure. The Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recently met the local government representatives where he told them to set up ward-level monitoring committees and create a local pool of oximeters.

The Odisha Government announced that it will be conducting house-to-house surveys on COVID-19 symptoms and comorbidities in rural areas with the help of Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Anganwadi workers. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reiterated the importance of community involvement in COVID-19 management especially mentioning gram panchayats and sarpanchs who have been effectively involved. He also mentioned the fact that sarpanchs continue to have the powers of district collectors in enforcing lockdowns.

Rajasthan has recently reported an increase in coronavirus cases from 30% to 40%  in rural areas, and the government issued a new standard operating procedure (SOP) for containment and management of cases in the affected areas. It adopts a multi-pronged approach led by gram panchayats where school teachers, women’s groups, self-help groups (SHGs), and ICDS staff are involved to fight the pandemic.

In Punjab, the Chief Minister has launched the Corona free village drive program ‘Corona Mukt Pind Abhiyaan’, to limit the spread of COVID-19 in villages. Moreover, CM Amarinder Singh recently announced Rs 10 lakh as a special development grant to every village that achieves a 100% vaccination target.

In Himachal Pradesh, the Chief Minister interacted with elected representatives of Panchayati Raj institutions and told them to ensure that people are following the standard operating procedures (SOPs). He said that the representatives must keep track of people in-home quarantine and effectively coordinate with them for any medical assistance.

What Tamil Nadu needs to do

Now coming to the scenario in Tamil Nadu, the previous government led by AIADMK had not involved the elected panchayat representatives properly to combat COVID-19 in rural areas during the first wave.  The present DMK government should understand the potential of the 9622 elected village panchayat representatives in Tamil Nadu who have been uninvolved till now. The state government must develop a proper SOP to tackle the pandemic in rural areas wherein they can tap the potential of these 9622 village panchayat presidents. Seeing the above community-driven initiatives from various states, the Tamil Nadu government should adopt a decentralised disaster governance structure to tackle COVID-19 by involving panchayat presidents, women’s groups, self help groups, volunteer organisations, etc and transfer appropriate financial resources to the panchayat level.

So far, Chief Minister MK Stalin has interacted with various stakeholders to combat COVID-19 but elected public representatives at the grassroots have been left out. Talking to these local leaders will help him to understand their developmental needs which are indispensable to tackling COVID-19 in rural areas. Also, it will increase their morale on the ground and inspire them to undertake innovative measures to contain the spread of the virus. These elected representatives can also collaborate with war rooms created under district administration to effectively coordinate and address all COVID-19 related issues in rural areas. It is to be mentioned that Coimbatore is the only district in Tamil Nadu to have created panchayat level Covid Care Centres (PLCCC) to tackle COVID-19 in rural areas. This had been done for all 228 Village panchayats by involving elected panchayat presidents, village health nurses, etc. This can be replicated in other districts as well.

Innovative measures

Another important aspect that needs to be addressed is the prevalence of vaccine hesitancy in rural areas. The government should conduct innovative awareness camps with the help of the local elected representatives and promote vaccination in rural areas.

Even without proper SOPs and guidelines, there are many village panchayats in Tamil Nadu that have used original measures to combat COVID-19, one amongst them is Sittilingi panchayat in Dharmapuri district, which even got recognition for their efforts on the Ministry of Panchayati Raj Twitter page. Under the able leadership of a woman president, Matheswari, Sittlingi panchayat has undertaken various initiatives like medical counselling, sensitising small shop owners to follow COVID-19 protocols, neem twigs tied in front of the houses to say guests are not welcome, among others. The Tamil Nadu government has to share these kinds of best practices adopted by village panchayats in public domain, which will inspire other panchayats and also help them to emulate similar practices in their own villages.

By implementing these measures, Tamil Nadu can create a mass movement at the grassroots level with proper community involvement to combat COVID-19 in rural areas.

Views expressed are the author's own.

Gurusaravanan M is a TNM member and Chairperson, Institute of Grassroots Governance.