Why has rural India become a new battleground for the pandemic?

SNAP ANALYSIS
Why has rural India become a new battleground for the pandemic?
A health worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) sprays disinfectant to sanitise an area outside a house whose members were allegedly found to be in contact with a COVID-19 positive person in a rural containment zone.Courtesy: Getty Images

Inability to recognise and diagnose symptoms coupled with lack of smartphone penetration, internet connections and failure to register digitally on government app Co-Win is hampering access to testing, healthcare and vaccines.

The Indian authorities have been reporting a decline in fresh coronavirus cases across the country, but the detail to watch out for is the climbing mortality rates which, according to reports, remain above 4,000.

The numbers cannot be cast in stone and this is because the worrying factor is that clear indications are still not emerging from the country’s rural areas where infections continue to spread.

India had been hit hard with the second wave of the pandemic catching the country’s healthcare system off guard as a more lethal variant of the virus fed the infections which sometimes rose to 400,000 daily.

In the rural areas, the spreading of infection rates was also coupled with low smartphone penetration and reliable internet access when it came to the availability of vaccines. This also includes people not owning cell-phones, in order to register their names in the government’s tracking app, Co-Win.

Lack of awareness in rural India

This digital deficit prevented citizens from booking their slots online, or being aware of where treatments could be availed from.

According to reports in the media, new infections over the past 24 hours were put at 281,386 by the health ministry today, dropping below 300,000 for the first time since 21 April. The daily death count, however, stood at 4,106.

At the current rate India's total caseload since the epidemic struck a year ago should pass the 25 million mark in the next couple of days. Total deaths were put at 274,390.

There was a bit of optimism in the markets, however, as they reacted to the news of falling infection rates with Indian shares rising today with financials rebounding from a sharp drop in the previous session. The NSE Nifty 50 index climbed 0.82% to 14,798.55 by 0505 GMT, up after three straight sessions of falls, while the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex advanced 0.93% to 49,191.68. Last week, both indexes lost 0.9% after worries over higher U.S. inflation triggered a sell-off in global markets.

Rural women carrying wooden sticks on their heads. Clear readings are still not emerging from the country’s rural areas where infections are spreading rapidly.
Rural women carrying wooden sticks on their heads. Clear readings are still not emerging from the country’s rural areas where infections are spreading rapidly.Courtesy: ANI

But the time is now for redoubling efforts to stay vigilant and prepared against all eventualities. Growing rates of infections abroad illustrate that the B.1.617 variant, first found in India, has now moved out of the country’s borders. Testing within the country needs to be stepped up according to Soumya Swaminathan, World Health Organization Chief Scientist and this is particularly important in the rural areas where the infection rates are running rampant. “

When you see high test positivity rates, clearly we are not testing enough,” said Swaminathan. “And so, the absolute numbers actually don't mean anything when they are taken just by themselves; they have to be taken in the context of how much testing is done, and test positivity rate."

Government focuses on awareness campaigns

The first wave of the pandemic in India was centred around the urban areas, with most migrant workers being sent home during the nationally imposed lockdown. Testing was also rolled out at a rapid rate in contrast with the second wave which is sweeping through towns and villages where two-thirds of the country’s population of 1.3 billion reside. It is puts the spotlight on the lack of proper healthcare facilities available in rural India.

The Modi government is doing all that it can to warn rural residents of the importance of testing and recognising symptoms of the infection. Getting access to the vaccine is also crucial for the population. At last count India had managed to vaccinate just over 40.4 million citizens and this account for 2.9% of its population. The authorities have curbed exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India (SII), which had been pledged to COVAX, to be used by the country as it battles a massive second wave of infections.

The first lot of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia arrived in India last week. The vaccine could soon be produced in India.
The first lot of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia arrived in India last week. The vaccine could soon be produced in India.Courtesy: ANI

In another significant development, Dr Reddy's labs collaborated with Apollo hospitals and launched a pilot programme for administering the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V vaccine on Monday.

Deepak Sapra, CEO, Pharmaceutical Services and Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), Dr Reddy's labs, said that the pilot programme was for the soft launch of the Sputnik V vaccine in the country. The motive was to check the cold chain supply of Sputnik V and other logistical needs for the same. The vaccine would be available for Rs 995 including GST, as it was being imported from Russia, but the cost would come down if production started in India, which could be in the next two months.

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