How local communities in northeast are at the forefront of fight against coronavirus

States such as Manipur and Mizoram have gained from a traditional method based on trust followed in shops. Even if shops are unmanned, people pick up what they want and put the money into a cash jar.

How local communities in northeast are at the forefront of fight against coronavirus
Govindo Molsom, who works as a cook in Agartala, has not seen his family since March 23 when Tripura announced a lockdown. But the 36-year-old is not unduly worried as his family stays in a village called Kalagon Mausambari, some 50 km from the capital. The village, he says, is among the among the most protected places to be in this pandemic.

“My village strictly follows a 14-day isolation rule. Anyone who lands there will have to stay in the community quarantine centre for a while. The villagers are monitoring the situation very closely,” he says over the phone, adding that he misses his family but “it is better that I bide my time here.”

The state with a population of 41 lakh, according to UIDAI’s 2019 estimate, has done comparatively better nationally in containing the pandemic. Till April end, Tripura was free of coronavirus. Today, it has a little more than 2,300 cases and three deaths (two due to comorbidities). It has managed to keep the numbers under control by stringent implementation of lockdown rules both by the government and the citizens.


“We have been following strict guidelines and testing aggressively,” Chief Minister Biplab Deb told ET Magazine. He has asked villagers to set up committees to review the state’s preparedness to combat the pandemic. His government has also started free distribution of Vitamin C-rich queen pineapple and lemon varieties native to the state to all households as part of a “public immunity boosting campaign” against the virus.

Baksa, Assam
Baksa, Assam
Visitors maintain social distancing while visiting a healthcare centre at Baksa, Assam

Such measures, particularly the ones roping in the local population and village elders, have kept the Northeastern states in the bottom half of the national Covid-19 tally. These states have been able to successfully combine their traditional ways of life with the lifestyle required to keep the virus away. Manipur has been able to keep the situation under control because of firm support from civil society, said Chief Minister N Biren Singh. The state has kept its death count zero by ensuring compulsory institutional quarantine for all people returning to the state. After testing here, positive cases are taken to Covid centres, while others go to quarantine centres in their respective assembly constituencies. “All positive cases are related to the returnees,” the CM added.
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States such as Manipur and Mizoram have gained from a traditional method based on trust followed in shops. Even if shops are unmanned, people pick up what they want and put the money into a cash jar. This has fortuitously contributed to social distancing. Of course, testing is also on. “At 19,000 tests per million, we are second to Assam in testing among the Northeastern states,” said Manipur Principal Secretary-Health V Vumlunmang.

Mizoram
Mizoram
A villager in Suarhliap village, Mizoram, keeps a lookout at the Myanmar border.

In Meghalaya, those entering the state have to undergo two layers of testing: A rapid test followed by the more accurate RT-PCR. Those testing positive go to Covid centres and the negative cases are put in home isolation for 14 days. In the capital, Shillong, all hotels have been converted into quarantine centres.

To keep its ears to the ground, the state government has set up 7,000-odd Covid committees, headed by village headmen and women. The committee members generate awareness, distribute self-help journals and keep tabs on the health of senior citizens in their areas. “Now we are preparing people for the eventuality of community transmission and taking every person to be an asymptomatic carrier.
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So we are focussing on behaviour change management and recording details for all the 35 lakh people in the state,” said Sampath Kumar, Meghalaya’s commissioner & secretary to health & family welfare.

In neighbouring Assam, the government has already hinted at community transmission, and has started door-to-door testing. “Aggressive testing and isolation are the state’s mantra,” said Principal Secretary-Health Samir K Sinha. All positive cases are taken to Covid centres. “Many houses do not have the facility to provide a separate toilet for Covid patients.” After testing negative, people have to again undergo seven days of home quarantine.
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The state gives Rs 2,000 to those who complete institutional quarantine. The government is also offering psychological counselling. A community surveillance programme has been implemented across all revenue villages and urban wards, state’s health department officials said.

United Moves
United Moves

In Nagaland, village elders who are custodians of customary laws are leading the community surveillance programme. Quarantine centres have been set up outside the villages. In several places, churches have been converted into quarantine centres. Nagaland Baptist Church Council general secretary Rev Zelhou Keyho said: “We have also started a prayer helpline for those feeling anxious, worried or lonely.”

Some quarantine centres have been named Covid 19 Creativity Hub Recreation Centres as they offer craft material and stationery for writing and creative work. “We heaved a sigh of relief when the last batch of returnees reached Dimapur last Thursday,” Nagaland NHM Mission Director K Medikhru said.

Village headmen and churches are helping to enforce preventive rules in Arunachal Pradesh, too. Director of Health Services M Lego said with 17 persons per sq km, social distancing happens automatically in the state. It is the returnees who are keeping the health authorities on their toes. “There have been no cases among our indigenous tribes.”

In Mizoram, people in Champhai and Serchhip have given community policing an international touch. Every day, a batch of men go to the long and porous Myanmar and Bangladesh borders to keep out smugglers and gunrunners. The residents fear these people might bring coronavirus with them. “People of Mizoram are very obedient,” said CM Zoramthanga.

Virus watch
Virus watch

“We test only those who are entering the state or those who have symptoms.” Most villages have built gates to regulate the flow of people. Even their own people are fined if found without masks.

With measures like these, it is clear why people like Molsom are not worried about their family.
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