GANGTOK: Sikkim is so far the only state in the country without a single reported positive case of COVID 19. Early preparedness and discipline are the two reasons for its success in keeping the virus at bay. When the world was arguing on how to handle the pandemic, Sikkim was busy screening everyone entering the tiny Himalayan State. This started on January 29, over 6 lakh individuals were screened as of April 18. The state sent 80 samples for testing and all came out negative. The state does not have a COVID 19 testing lab or viral lab, which has been one of its demands to the central government.
Now, the State is prepared to lift the lockdown partially from April 20 keeping its borders sealed and imposing a ban on inter and intra-State travel till May 3.
Sikkim was best suited to fight the pandemic owing to its landlocked geography but the same posed a threat as well with three countries as its neighbours, China in the North, Nepal in the West and Bhutan in the East. “With the virus outbreak in China and its early spread into Nepal in January, Sikkim sealed its borders specifically the Nathu La border with China putting an embargo on locals, domestic and foreign tourists from visiting the border regions. We also laid focus on sealing the porous borders with Nepal in the West keeping only two borders at Rangpo and Melli as entry and exit points with West Bengal”, stated Chief Minister Prem Singh Golay.
The State administration deputed health professionals at its borders for thermal screening along with the State Police keeping a strict vigil on Sikkimese people returning from various cities of the country. The self-declaration of ones travel history was a pre-requisite for anyone wishing to come back home. Irrespective travel history, citizens entering their home state were put on self-quarantine for 14 to 28 days.
After COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the State banned the entry of foreign travellers on March 5 and subsequently the domestic tourists from March 17. This was a tough decision as the tourist season was at its peak. In March 2019 the State had received 1,18,000 tourists, the decision was a big economic blow.
The State depends on the rest of the country for essential commodities, medicines and also COVID 19 testing. State Health Department had been sending its samples to Kolkata and Guwahati initially but with the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital opening its COVID 19 lab in Siliguri, the samples were ferried 120 km away. The COVID 19 lab in the State is currently under construction and could be functional only in the next 3 months.
Alarm bells rang with the first COVID-19 death in neighbouring Kalimpong district in North Bengal in the first week of April. Subsequently, 6 other positive cases were reported. The location is just 70 km away from Gangtok. The Health Department immediately tracked down 320 people who had travelled on the same flight as the Kalimpong victim from Chennai to Bagdogra in late March.
“We tracked down a dozen people who had deboarded from the flight towards Sikkim, all of them were traced within 24 hours. We found out 6 people were under home quarantine already while 6 others were placed in quarantine in a government facility. We had a devoted surveillance team inclusive of doctors and medical practitioners along with police and administration for tracking of people hiding their travel history. The locals also started reporting such violators.”, stated Sikkim Health Director General Dr. Pempa Tshering Bhutia.
With positive cases rising in North Bengal and migrant workers attempting to flee to their home states, Sikkim Police swung into action and sealed its borders. “We are sealing the borders not merely for our safety but also to keep our neighbours safe. There is dependency on either region of the border for basic essential items to even social exchanges, but sealing the borders keeps both the regions safe. The migrant workers in Sikkim also tried to cross the border to reach their homes, but we stopped them at Rangpo. The rules are strict under the NDMA act and there is a precursor to remain wherever you are and not move about”, stated DIG Range Sonam Tenzing Bhutia.
The implementation at the borders was so strict that a High Court Judges e-pass to ferry his family members into SIkkim from West Bengal was cancelled by a sub-divisional magistrate.
The implementation at the border was so strict that a High Court Judges e-pass to ferry his family members into Sikkim from West Bengal was cancelled by a sub-divisional magistrate.
All vehicles bringing essential commodities and medical aids to the State were sanitized before making their journey inward to the State. Transit camps for such truckers and drivers commuting to the State have also been set up at every district. Drivers from West Bengal are instructed to return on the same day after the delivery.
All vehicles bringing essential commodities and medical aids to the State were sanitized before making their journey inward to the State. Transit camps for such truckers and drivers commuting to the State have also been set up at every district. Drivers from West Bengal are instructed to return on the same day after the delivery
Over 3560 people have been put under home quarantine and another 119 under facility quarantine with 1150 people screened in the Flu Clinics as of April 19. Now, with such success, the State has considered on partially lifting the lockdown albeit banning the intra and inter-State travel unless an emergency.
“Sikkim has a habit of welcoming anything good and new with open arms, the lockdown was well respected by the people with 99% of the people adhering to it, staying indoors all along from March 17. Now with 80 samples coming in as negative, it is safe to say that Sikkim’s fight against the pandemic has been a success and the only threat we have is from outside the State, now”, stated State’s Chief Secretary SC Gupta over discussions on opening the lockdown from Monday.
The partial lifting of lockdown means Section 144 is still in place till May 3. The access for border movements is allowed only to health workers and officials. The administration will function with one-third to half the manpower. Banks, Factories, construction works and farmers have been given the green signal to resume their activity. “Following the lift on the lockdown from May 3, there will be a huge rush of Sikkimese people stranded in other States making their way home. We have set a pre-requisite that they must register themselves on Aarogya Setu App launched by the Centre. The app will help in contract tracing while also facilitating their return to the State with a self-declaration that they are free of the virus”, stated Gupta.
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