‘Our foremost priorities are suitable care and treatment of COVID-19 patients, increased testing, aggressive contact-tracing, strict surveillance of containment zones, and enforcement of the lockdown norms.’
By T Radhakrishna
The biggest strengths of Latehar district in Jharkhand are people, healthcare staff and technology. Using the trio, the district administration has been controlling the spread of COVID-19. An important task during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the formation of a large volunteer base for the district within a short time.
“Several civil society organizations such as Nehru Yuva Kendra, Starlight International Charitable Society, teachers, college students, and PDS dealers were marshalled in the district to ensure that communication and awareness reaches to the most interior, hard to reach regions of Latehar. We have given training to them using video conferencing and technology,” says Zeeshan Qamer, Deputy Commissioner, Latehar District, Government of Jharkhand, while sharing best practices and experiences in dealing with COVID-19 crisis, in an interview with ETGovernment
How do you describe COVID-19 situation in your district?
The District administration has been treating every aspect of COVID-19 with utmost earnestness from March 2020. Dedicated teams have been put in place for tackling every possible challenge. There is a periodic review of every activity to ensure there are no lapses. Though there has been an increase in the number of cases in the last couple of weeks, the situation in the district is under control. This is primarily due to our early preparedness and quick response strategies, which were put in place when the number of cases was low.
As of July 23, 2020, 231 positive cases have been reported, out of which 79 have recovered (34.2%). There are 22 containment zones under active surveillance, and 152 active cases for whom the treatment is on in the various dedicated COVID facilities in the district. The silver-lining, if there is one, has been that all active cases fall under the ‘asymptomatic’ or ‘mildly symptomatic’ category. At the moment, there is one dedicated COVID Health Facility based in the district with 108 beds. In addition, there are seven COVID Care Centers (CCCs) which are based at the Block levels (240 beds). With these, we are confident and well prepared to tackle future challenges.
What are your priorities at this moment?
Our foremost priorities are suitable care and treatment of COVID-19 patients, increased testing, aggressive contact-tracing, strict surveillance of containment zones, and enforcement of the lockdown norms.
In my view, focusing on these components will minimize the spread of the disease and ensure that the district administration (and especially the health infrastructure) is not overwhelmed at any given point.
Since the relaxation of the lockdown norms, there has been emphasis on making markets and public places a safe space for everyone. Besides ensuring strict compliance to the mask rule and other public safety norms like social distancing, we are also running several awareness campaigns to inculcate behavioral changes in the masses.
We have made sustained efforts on this front since March by involving several grassroots NGOs and volunteers as well. Given the challenging topography of Latehar, our goal is to effectively disseminate awareness materials in various forms- wall writing, regular announcements, and door-to-door surveys- to even the remotest regions.
How are you dealing with the crisis? What has been your district’s strategy to unlock the business activity?
In Latehar, a District Task Force was established under my leadership, and a District Micro Plan was formulated in the initial stages of the pandemic itself, even when there were no positive cases. The task force has officials from various departments, including Health, to overcome challenges on various fronts.
This team is responsible for creation of an outbreak response plan, communication and awareness, procurement of safety equipment, planning of quarantine and isolation centers, preparation of the containment plan, and creation of a diverse volunteer base in the district.
We also organized multiple mock drills to ensure every individual understood their responsibilities, and there was an established chain of command for whenever a positive case is reported. In my opinion, the early preparedness was crucial for all district officials and health functionaries to acquaint themselves of the COVID-19 protocols and take appropriate measures when cases started to come.
District’s COVID micro plan is also unique as it has been fine-tuned with the ‘village’ as a basic unit. It is proving to be effective in management and surveillance of the affected zones. The immediate response team has a combination of the frontline health workforce, SHG (Self Help Groups) volunteers, and Rozgar Sewaks at the village level.
The primary surveillance team includes an ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife), a Sahiya (ASHA Worker), a Sevika (Anganwadi Worker), and a supervisor which includes an MPW (Multi-Purpose Health Worker) or a teacher or both. While the ANM takes care of the technical aspect, she has added support from Sahiya and Sevika. The assigned MPW and teacher will be responsible for overseeing the village in terms of any requirement vis-a-vis essentials including groceries and medicines. Around 800 Sahiya didis are regularly engaged in a household survey in their respective villages and coordinating with their block response team. We also ensured adequate training to our frontline workers so that they feel confident in carrying out their responsibilities in a high risk environment.
Since the unlocking, the administration has been keeping a close eye on public places, especially markets, ensuring that shopkeepers and buyers adhere to social distancing, regular sanitization, and other safety norms. A monitoring team has been put in place to ensure adherence with safety protocols.
Since markets reopened, more than 30 shops have been also sealed for violating COVID safety measures. The measures taken were crucial in sending a strong message. Additionally, the district administration has also been urging the Chamber of Commerce (Latehar) to shut non-essential shops so that there is better regulation of crowds. This blended approach has been effective so far in achieving public safety post unlocking.
Apart from the COVID-19, what are other major concerns that you are dealing with for the benefit of your district?
COVID-19 brought several ancillary and unforeseen challenges for the district administration. The two primary ones were- ensuring access to food, and the return of migrant workers to the district.
As soon as the lockdown began in March, we put several mechanisms in place to ascertain access to food for every household in the district. Given there are several hard-to-reach areas there are multiple mechanisms put in place to make adequate food reach every household in need.
Quick response help-lines were established at the district and block level to make sure that there is no delay in providing aid. We also ensured that the ‘Didi Kitchen’ initiative of the State government was run efficiently. There were 137 Mukhyamantri Didi Kitchens operating in Latehar, which had served approximately 6.20 lakh individuals (up to May 31, 2020). This comes up to 9,700 meals per day.
During this time, 13,280 migrant workers returned to Latehar, out of which 7,828 were admitted in institutional quarantine. We also regularly monitored all quarantine centers to provide quality food and other facilities during their stay. We were cognizant of the fact that these are difficult times for them too and it was necessary for everyone in the administration to serve them with a lot of care and empathy.
How are you taking care of the safety of government employees when they are on duty?
We are extremely mindful and take every possible measure to mitigate risks for the employees (both medical and non-medical staff) at this time. There is strict compliance with all the safety norms in the collectorate, block offices, and health centers in the district. Some of the measures include periodic sanitization of the office spaces, temperature screening, distribution of masks and COVID testing of all employees.
With respect to our various health workers (who are our primary COVID warriors), we have taken additional measures in form of availing appropriate protective gears- gloves, masks and PPE kits. We are determined to provide a safe and welcoming work environment for all our functionaries.
Which are your best practices and best technologies that your district administration is following?
One of the most important tasks during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the formation of a large volunteer base for the district within a short time. Several civil society organizations (Nehru Yuva Kendra, Starlight International Charitable Society), teachers, college students, and PDS dealers were marshalled in the district to ensure that communication and awareness reaches to the most interior, hard to reach regions of Latehar.
The number of volunteers eager to participate in COVID-19 related relief work exceeded the district administration’s expectation. More than 3,000 members of the SHG, 400 members from 7 civil society organizations, 200 plus teachers, mukhiyas, and rozgar-sevaks have been operationalized in the district in this short duration. The creation of a large and diverse volunteer base from within the district has ensured that no single body/individual is overburdened with public information outreach, and the awareness is spread in areas where miking and IEC materials wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. This team of motivated individuals helped in ensuring quick response once a patient is identified, and the containment zone and buffer zone are marked.
To ensure the volunteers’ effectiveness, the foremost challenge was their training on important COVID-19 related information and safety measures. The training was coordinated in smaller groups via video conferencing. The volunteers were divided as per their respective organizations for this purpose to ensure two-way communication. Various district-level health officials were also pooled in to ensure accurate dissemination of information regarding their functions and safety. This training was then followed with distribution of various educational materials via the Whatsapp groups to the volunteers. These materials included video and written content on hand-wash, social distancing, importance of masks. The Whatsapp groups are also being used for reducing the communication gap between the volunteers and the district administration. They have been encouraged to reach out to the district team with their suggestions and doubts at all times.
In a district-level meeting organized with all the active CSOs, the heads of these organizations pledged their unequivocal support to the district administration in fighting this pandemic.
Did you avail the crisis into opportunity? In which industries, you are looking for investments from the private sector?
In the beginning of this pandemic as there was shortage of masks and sanitizers in the district, several SHGs took this as an opportunity to fill this gap. Specially, they were instrumental in supplying masks for the frontline health workers and district officials when masks were not readily available in the market. In a very short duration, several SHGs supplied essential commodities such as masks and sanitizers to overcome the initial shortage.