Estimates show that 65% of COVID-19 cases during the second wave of the pandemic came from rural areas of India.
As worrisome and grim a picture as this portrays, a small village not too far from urban Maharashtra shines as a beacon of hope. Kalbhonde, a tribal village located around 110 km from Thane along the foothills of Kulang Fort, has remained COVID-19 free for over 448 days.
So how did a tribal hamlet with over 1,000 residents achieve this feat? We take a look.
Prashant Marke, a gram sevak at the Zilla Parishad, says that as the lockdown came into effect on 24 March, the gram panchayat received COVID-19 guidelines and village residents worked to follow them religiously.
“The fear of the disease had gripped the village. The residents formed an 11-member committee to handle the crisis. This included Anganwadi and health workers, the sarpanch, the village head, a doctor, teachers and village members,” Prashant tells The Better India.
He says that the members unanimously decided to have only one entry and exit point for people moving in and out of the village. “The geographic location also played a role here. The village is surrounded by hills on three sides, which made the monitoring of visitors easier,” he says.
He adds that temporary shelters were set up outside the village boundary. “People who wished to return to the village from urban areas were isolated for 14 days and allowed in only when they showed no signs of illness,” Prashant says.
The residents did not venture out unless required. “They are mainly farmers or farm labourers who grow cereals, ragi, rice and barnyard millet rice. The population resorted to depending on wild vegetables and fish around the forest area for daily supplies. No trips were made to procure vegetables or organise a market as it would lead to crowding,” he says.
Bhalchandra Khadke, a resident of Kalbhonde, says that oil, spices and other ration became available with help from Mumbai-based NGOs. “However, no person was allowed to enter the village. There was only one point of contact, and the packets were stored, sanitised and distributed to the villagers,” he says.
Bhalchandra says the villagers underwent monthly health check-ups and were instructed to keep hydrated during summer months and include adequate nutrition in their meals to avoid any illness.
He adds that a vehicle was arranged for those who had to step out due to urgent work. “A trip outside the village was only allowed if there were crucial commitments. The vehicle was sanitised at all times,” he says.
While these efforts proved to be successful, Bhalchandra says it was hard to convince hundreds of villagers to follow guidelines efficiently during the first wave. “Committee members convinced them through door-to-door visits to increase awareness. The habits developed slowly,” he says.
Prashant adds that residents began voluntarily following the rules during the second wave of the pandemic. “They took baths after every visit outside the village, used masks at all times, limited their trips and maintained self-discipline,” he says.
In addition, they formed a network outside the village to monitor any stranger entering without prior notice. “We received alerts if any visitor attempted to enter the village without informing. There are no restrictions to visit the village as long as COVID-19 norms are being followed. The crucial aspect is not to let our guard down,” he says.
‘COVID-19 can be controlled’
Kalbhonde’s COVID-19 management work earned kudos from government officials. Chandrakant Pawar, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Thane Zilla Parishad, says the village has demonstrated the best practices to implement ‘Break the Chain’, a state government initiative for curbing the disease. “The tribals are perceived as less educated or unaware, but they understand the importance of the diseases, follow precautions and remain safe,” he says.
Chandrakant adds that the villagers did not migrate and became self-sustained by using available resources in the vicinity.
Meanwhile, Prashant says that the success of his village shows that following protocols can keep the disease at bay. “COVID-19 can be fought only by determination and self-discipline,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu