Basanti Rajbhor, a farmer in her 50s, hopes that this month, she would get hired by the big farmers from the neighbouring villages for the Kharif season.
She works for five to six farmers each year and has been doing so for almost three decades. She works in their fields, from sowing rice seeds to harvesting.
But this year, she has fewer hopes of getting hired.
Rajbhor, a resident of the flood-prone village of Gakhirkhaity in Nagaon district of Assam, says the second wave of the pandemic will make it difficult for her to get the contract. She fears that the recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases in her village would hamper her chances of getting hired.
“I don’t have hopes that the babulog (big farmers) would hire me in their fields. Getting work last year was tough when there were no cases in our village. But things have changed now. We have active cases in almost all villages,” she said.
Her village, on the banks of Brahmaputra, has more than ten active cases of COVID-19. Her village is not suitable for monsoon season crops, as the area is flood-prone and is affected for three-four months every year. “There is no scope for Kharif season crops, especially Rice, due to floods. So, I work in the monsoon season in neighbouring villages to earn some bread,” she added.
An annual threat looms large again
Flood is an annual calamity in Assam and the deluge affects at least 30 out of 33 districts, taking hundreds of human and animal lives. Last year the state reported 149 deaths, while six million people were affected in 5,474 inundated villages.
Rural areas constitute more than 80 per cent of flooding incidents and have the highest share of death tolls. However, this year, there is another reason to worry for the villagers and the state government. It is the high rate of infection of COVID-19 cases in the villages.
In the first wave of the pandemic, rural Assam was not as affected as the urban areas. However, the second wave brought unprecedented positivity rates in the rural areas. It was feared last year by the state government that if the outbreak of the virus happens in the villages at the time of the flood, things would go out of hand. But, that didn’t happen last year and they sailed through smoothly. However, this year, the villages are not just seeing a surge in cases but also fatalities.
Like Rajbhor, Mizanur Rahman, a villager from Kapoha village in Barpeta district said he was worried about the rainy season and floods. “Floodwater submerges the entire village. Once the floodwater enters, people would run here and there to seek shelter. There will be no social distancing. It happened last year, but then, there was no positive case. But look at the scenario today. There is a community spread in the village,” Mizanur, whose village lies near the confluence of River Brahmaputra and River Beki, told EastMojo.
He also added that the low turnout for vaccination in villages of lower Assam increased the positivity and mortality rate. He said, “A lot of misinformation regarding vaccines not being safe is doing the rounds. There is no awareness of this issue. A lack of vaccination has, in return, reported an increase in the moderate to severe cases in my village, including daily deaths. I agree that there is a shortage of vaccines, but above that, people don’t usually turn up to get themselves vaccinated.”
Out of the villages under threat, the Char-Chaporis is said to be the most vulnerable. The Char-Chaporis, shifting low-lying riverine areas formed by the river sediment, are under constant threat of flood and erosion during the rainy season.
Dr Hafiz Ahmed, litterateur and an expert on the Char-Chaporis, said, “Char-Chaporis are flood-prone, and every year, we witness devastation here more than anywhere else. However, these areas have already started reporting a large number of COVID-19 positive cases and deaths. The number of deaths in these areas has gone high in the last two months. I can’t imagine what would happen during the flood.”
Due to its natural condition and remoteness, development projects don’t reach these areas. “The healthcare system in these areas is worrisome. There are no medical facilities nearby. About ten villages don’t even have a PHC (Public Healthcare Centers) or a dispensary. Even though there are PHCs, the doctors don’t usually station there, forget about having an ambulance and oxygen cylinders,” said Ahmed.
Last week, Ahmed had to call the MLA from Baghbor constituency after the villagers in Char areas reported that the doctors in the nearby PHC are not regular to their work.
“There was one PHC where two doctors come on alternate days. I complained to the MLA, and he instructed the district administration to act on this. This is a story of one Char area. Imagine how many such incidents go unreported?” he added.
Illiteracy and backwardness was another reason which Ahmed believed behind the surge in the positive cases. “Char-Chaporis have a high illiteracy rate and still have a lack of awareness regarding the virus. It’s been more than a year now, but people living in these areas are not aware of the measures to contain the virus.” According to data available with the Directorate of Char Areas Development, Government of Assam, 80 per cent of the Char population lives below the poverty line. “In a family, there are 13-15 people on average who live together in a small house. If one person is infected, it spreads to everyone in the family. People don’t go for testing, which in turn spreads the virus across the village. That’s the reason for the mortality too,” he added.
Last year, the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA) issued an advisory to the district administrations for managing flood relief camps in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak in the state. It mentioned: “Identify additional relief camps in addition to the existing pre-identify camps as per population density of villages to earmark space for social distancing. Ensure 7 sq. m. of area per person instead of 3.5 sq. m. to validate social distancing of at least one meter between any two camp inmates.”
Reacting to the advisory, Mizanur said, “My village and its neighbouring areas do not have adequate raised platforms and additional relief camps. I’m not able to think what will happen next. We need to come out with some other ideas to tackle this anticipated issue.”
In North Assam, another flood-prone area, Rudra Dahal, a villager in Madhya Chatrang village in Gohpur sub-division believes that the COVID-19 spread, flood in his village and vector-borne disease outbreak at the same time would be catastrophic.
“COVID-19 cases in my village have come down but the flood might bring back the virus when people would be living in relief camps and on embankments. There is a lack of clean drinking water during the flood, which also brings in other diseases. We are stuck in this vicious cycle of diseases and problems,” said Dahal, whose village sees flooding by Chatrang river, a tributary of Brahmaputra.
“There are few (if any) awareness drives carried out by the government. In our village, we have seen no awareness campaign. We don’t know about many things. The TV news channels don’t show us anything on this. When there is no awareness, the chances of people making grave mistakes are there,” he expressed, adding that if anything happened, they would be in no position to help them.
He, however, said that panchayats should mobilise the work to make sure that the villages have adequate relief camps and elevated areas to maintain social distancing. “Instead of waiting for the government, villages which do not see flooding should give their community halls, clubs and vacant houses to the district administration to increase the number of relief camps. We can together work this out to make the possibility of social distancing,” Dahal said.
COVID-19 not the only issue
Another worrying reason during the flood season in Assam is the outbreak of vector-borne diseases like Japanese Encephalitis (JE), Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES) and Malaria. The floodwater adds to the outbreak. Last year, the state recorded 595 cases and 320 cases of AES and JE respectively. While 96 people died of AES, 51 died of JE. However, the data for 2020 was better than 2019, when 514 people died of AES and JE together out of 3294 total cases, the highest ever case of the vector-borne disease.
“We have no Encephalitis cases, but we have started reporting Malaria cases in the adjoining village. Although the numbers from last year are positive, even one case is of great concern, especially when hospitals are full with Covid-19 infected patients,” added Dahal.
ASDMA and National Health Mission Assam officials could not be reached for comments despite repeated attempts.