After Maharashtra witnessed a devastating health crisis in April and May, the weekly COVID-19 positivity rate across the state is slowly declining. As per the latest report on June 10, the positivity rate came down from 15.18% in May to 5.89% in June with regions such as Solapur, Nagpur, Nashik reporting a rate of less than 5%.
While presenting the figures, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackery praised local administrations for their work. Among these were two 21-year-old sarpanches from Solapur district – Ruturaj Deshmukh from Ghatane and Komal Karpe from Antroli village respectively. The two only came to power in February this year, just before the onset of the second wave of coronavirus.
Fairly new to the runnings of an administration, the duo was faced with a challenge that even experts and veteran officials are grappling with. The situation is especially worse in rural areas, given the lack of awareness and facilities. But the two BSc graduates took up the challenge to mitigate COVID-19 cases in their respective villages and succeeded within a month.
The Better India speaks to the young sarpanches about the measures they undertook to safeguard their villages.
Ruturaj Deshmukh: ‘Testing was the key’
Ruturaj’s parents are farm labourers, and his experiences growing up provided him better insight into how poverty escalates when government schemes and benefits do not reach the grassroots, he says. This was his primary motive behind standing for local administration elections. “I know that if the gram panchayat works efficiently, it can solve the problems of its people,” he says.
Speaking about the COVID crisis, he adds, “When I came to power, coronavirus cases were dropping and I was glad that things were returning to normal. But in the first week of April, two people from the same family died due to the virus. So without wasting any time, I swung into action because it was important to nip the virus in the bud,” says Rurutaj, who is also a student of LLB.
The village, with a population of 1,500 people, was immediately put under a lockdown as cases in the first week of April spread swiftly. Within a few days, 15 people had been infected with COVID-19.
With the help of his panchayat team and the local police, Ruturaj imposed a strict fine of Rs 200 on people found not wearing masks in public places, or those venturing outside their homes without a valid reason. This helped village residents realise the seriousness of the virus. He also launched an awareness campaign called ‘Be Positive and COVID-19 Negative’ to spread awareness with the help of Anganwadi health workers.
“Two deaths led to fear and panic among people and they started shifting to their farms located on the outskirts of the village. This led to further spread of the virus. We don’t have a COVID-19 care facility and the nearest centre is 4 kilometres away. Moreover, the hospital to treat severe patients is 34 kilometres away. Letting this escalate was not an option,” Ruturaj notes.
To break the chain, the gram panchayat tested every resident via a door-to-door survey, irrespective of their symptoms at the initial stage. Meanwhile, Anganwadi workers would check every resident’s O2 level every day. Those who tested positive were immediately sent to the centres via government ambulances.
He says rapid testing was the key to fighting the virus, “Initially, people questioned our intentions to test because they thought coronavirus is just like the flu. But we didn’t give up, as testing helped isolate people quickly,” Ruturaj says.
Every person entering the village was mandated to remain in a 14-day quarantine and was tested every three days. Ruturaj also distributed free sanitation kits comprising masks and hand sanitisers.
All the patients have recovered and the village is COVID-19 free. Nearly 80% of the 45+ villagers have got the first dose of vaccine.
Ruturaj and his team have already begun work to prepare for the third wave. They have categorised children according to their age groups and deployed various task forces comprising healthcare workers, teachers, and ASHA workers to conduct category-wise check ups every week. The sarpanch says he will soon come out with a protein and vitamin-rich diet plan for the children with help from a dietician.
Ruturaj also plans to set up a 10-bed COVID-19 care centre for the children. For this, he is conducting a crowdfunding campaign. If you wish to help, you can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 7020562209.
Komal Karpe: ‘Building trust was crucial’
Only two people from Antroli were infected with coronavirus in the first wave, which left the villagers, which has a population of 2,998, thinking the virus is not dangerous. But in the second wave, the area recorded 88 cases and 15 deaths.
Karpe was just settling in as sarpanch when she had to take on the responsibility of mitigating the COVID-19 crisis in her village. She says she was scared, but with access to health experts and other departments of the administration, she was swift to draft a plan of action.
She focussed on contact tracing with help from village committees and set up a quarantine centre in a government school. Asymptomatic patients were isolated there and doctors provided necessary treatment.
“Village residents are scared to visit city hospitals. According to them, huge hospitals will extract money and give them wrong medicines. Our isolation centre made a huge difference. As they began trusting the administration, more people came forward for testing,” says Komal.
She also imposed a curfew twice a week for a month. Only shops selling essential items were allowed to function. With help of the village committee, Komal arranged doorstep delivery of goods.
She says she had a hard time getting people for vaccination drives in the beginning.
“Fake news regarding vaccination was spreading like wildfire. People believed that the vaccine for common folk like themselves is inferior as compared to what is given to doctors, that it will kill you, and other such bizarre theories. I had to go beyond spreading awareness. I got my father and grandmother to take the first shot. Other panchayat members also got their families vaccinated. Seeing them, close to 300 people above 45 came forward and got the jab,” says Komal.
For the third wave, Komal is arranging for medicines, beds and other resources for children.
The village has not recorded a single case since 15 May.
Komal says she is happy that the Chief Minister praised a young woman like her from a small village, as it has motivated her to do better and be prepared for the third wave.
Edited by Divya Sethu