Two villages, just a few metres apart and bearing the same name belong to two states, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. However, each one’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is starkly different. While Kerala has seized the bull by its horns and is aggressively testing and vaccinating its people, on the Tamil Nadu side, the response is still lukewarm.
Vaccination drive in Tamil Nadu. (Representational image )
Just a checkpost separates Anaikatti in Tamil Nadu from Anaikatti in Kerala. Prema Surendran walks a kilometre from Anaikatti in Kerala to its namesake village in Tamil Nadu, where her place of work is. The 42-year-old is a teacher at Vidyavanam, a school for tribal children in Anaikatti, Tamil Nadu where she has been teaching for 14 years.
Like her, others too move to and fro easily and everyday between these two southern states. However, there is a stark difference in the response to the COVID-19 in both the Anaikattis right from testing the people for the virus or vaccinating them.
“Because my husband had work in Tamil Nadu, he had to undergo an antigen test before he left Kerala. It turned out he was positive, and he was whisked back to Mannarkkad in Palakkad district, and quarantined for ten days,” Surendran told Gaon Connection.
This was in August last year. Even back then, the health authorities swung into action and ensured all protocols were observed and all support was extended to the family.
“When he was there, my son, daughter and I had to be in isolation,” Surendran continued. But they were very well looked after with health officials checking on them regularly and volunteers, mostly college students, dropping off provisions and medicines if required at their doorstep. “We were given phone numbers of the volunteers and we could call them up anytime we needed something,” said Surendran.
Less than a kilometre away, the Anaikatti panchayat in Tamil Nadu is made up of about 24 tribal villages and roughly 10,000 people. “Many of them in the interiors of the Anaikatti Hills do not want to come down to get tested,” N Palaniswami, president of the gram panchayat, told Gaon Connection.
“Besides, they have to travel nearly fifteen kilometres sometimes to get to the block PHC [primary health centre] at Dhalayor to get tested,” he said. There are forests, and the terrain is hard, and no transportation available to them. “We have also not had any cases of COVID 19 from these interior villages, so…,” Palaniswami assured.
Testing aside, vaccination also doesn’t seem to be a priority for people living in and around Anaikatti in Tamil Nadu. “There is vaccine scepticism to deal with here and people are reluctant to step up and get tested,” Prem Rangachari, educator and director of Vidyavanam in Anaikatti, Tamil Nadu, told Gaon Connection. She herself had to go all the way to Coimbatore, nearly 30 kilometres away, to get her vaccine shots.
“Those villages closer to Coimbatore are being monitored. We are keeping an eye there,” said Palaniswami, adding that there have been no deaths due to COVID-19 in the villages. The tribal villages are remotely located. Getting there means a long walk from the nearest roadhead. People going or coming from there have to cross dense jungles with a significant population of wild elephants in them.
Like it is in many parts of rural India, many villagers here believe that COVID-19 is an affliction of big cities and it will not make its way into their villages. “They believe that they are hard working people and the Coronavirus is not likely to affect them,” Kannan Sahadevan, a restaurant owner at the Anaikatti bus stop in Tamil Nadu told Gaon Connection. First, they have to come all the way to Dhalayor PHC to get tested, and there is this fear that if tested and found positive they will be taken away to some quarantine centre, Kannan added.
The 49-year-old himself just walked across the border from Tamil Nadu to Kerala on March 26, where a vaccine camp was in progress and got himself his first shot. “If there are just one of two people who cross the border to get vaccinated, they do not mind, but they won’t allow, if there is a crowd,” he said.
On April 22, when R Selvaraj of Veerapandi village in Anaikatti, Tamil Nadu set out to get himself vaccinated at Dhalayor, he found quite a crowd waiting to be vaccinated. “We may have been about a hundred strong. People turned up to get their first and second vaccines,” the 52-year-old told Gaon Connection.
According to him many of them left without getting vaccinated. Why? “They were unwilling to get tested before being vaccinated. They did not mind getting the shot, but were wary of getting tested,” he said.
Meanwhile, just a stone’s throw away in Kerala, the health officials have been extremely proactive, said Surendran. They have gone from house to house, spreading awareness, urging people to come forward and get vaccinated, assuring them it was safe, getting people who were already vaccinated to speak to them, and so on. Inhabitants from tribal villages were picked up in vehicles, taken to be tested and vaccinated and dropped back home, after keeping them under observation for half an hour.
R Ramamoorthy, panchayat president of Anaikatti in Kerala, informed Gaon Connection that there were 6,500 people above the age of 45 in his panchayat. “Of these two thousand seven hundred and fifty people in the age group above forty five have already been vaccinated,” he said. “If anyone has shown reluctance or inability to get tested or vaccinated, we organise vehicles and bring them, and drop them back,” he said.
Ever since the pandemic started in the country, a year ago, since March 16, the chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan has been holding press meets at 6 pm every day. Nearly an hour long, Malyalis across the globe tune in via the internet of television channels to hear him give the latest updates on the Coronavirus cases in the state, how many people have been tested, how many positive cases, and so on.
“We look forward to the broadcast. We try not to miss it,” said Surendran. She said how the chief minister made it a point to take the names of people who had contributed to COVID relief in the state. “Once he thanked so many children who had broken their piggy banks and sent the money for relief,” said Surendran who added that her children were motivated to do the same too.
Both Kerala and Tamil Nadu have only just come out of their respective election campaigns. In Kerala, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the Left Democratic Front had a resounding victory, and will continue as the chief minister, while in Tamil Nadu MK Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam will be the new chief minister.
The chief ministers of the respective states have their work cut out as they respond to the challenge of strengthening the rural healthcare infrastructure and combating the second wave of COVID19.