Fear of testing positive is making villagers in Madhya Pradesh avoid visit to COVID test centres

While COVID-like symptoms are on the rise in villages of Madhya Pradesh, rural inhabitants are unwilling to get tested for the fear of testing positive, and the distance they have to travel to get a test done. Around 20% of COVID cases in Dhar district are from villages.

Shivani Gupta
| Updated: Last updated on May 8th, 2021,

Today, May 4, Madhya Pradesh recorded 12,236 fresh coronavirus infections and 98 deaths due to the virus. All photos: By arrangement

In the peak April heat, Deepak Sharma rode the bike, with his brother and mother as pillion riders, and travelled over 50 kilometres (km) to reach the Bhind district hospital. Both the brother and the mother were showing COVID-19-like symptoms — fever, cold and cough — and Sharma, a resident of Nibsai Khera village in Madhya Pradesh, was frightened.

There was no testing facility closer to his village and hence the 50 km long ride with ill family members. But, reaching the district hospital was only a part of the battle to get his family tested for COVID-19, Sharma soon learnt.

“On April 30, after we reached Bhind, I was told there was a huge crowd in the government hospital. I wanted to avoid that, and asked a worker to take our antigen tests [immediate test result] separately,” 30-year-old Sharma told Gaon Connection. The whole process, which is free at the government facility, cost him around Rs 1,200 — including the Rs 300 a person for the COVID antigen test — and an entire day.

His hunch was right — his brother and mother were positive. However, his test report came negative.

“Almost every household in our village suffers from cold and fever, but nobody is willing to get tested. There are no testing facilities in our village, either. Gaon me sab apne haal pe hain [People in the villages are on their own],” he rued.

There are two reasons why villagers in rural Madhya Pradesh are unwilling to get tested — the fear of testing positive, and the distance they have to travel to get a test done.

Villagers say almost every household suffers from cold and fever.

Over 660 kms to the south-west of Bhind, the situation is no different in Dhar, a predominantly tribal district of Madhya Pradesh. Villagers say almost every household suffers from cold and fever. But nobody is willing to get tested.

Also Read: Rural Uttar Pradesh in a fever of trouble

“Even though our village is near the district hospital, people are unwilling to get tested. Villagers are afraid to get hospitalised,” 19-year-old Vaibhav Patidar, a resident of Chikliya village of Dhar district, told Gaon Connection.

“Recently, two people in my village died of COVID. They didn’t get tested earlier. Only when the situation got out of control were they admitted to the district hospital,” Patidar added.

Patidar also informed that his village has only been sanitised once this year. “Last year, when the situation was not very grim for villages, people were very aware. Now that the situation has reversed, people have become careless. COVID cases seem to be increasing in villages that are near cities,” said Patidar.

Corona’s second wave in villages

Today, May 4, Madhya Pradesh recorded 12,236 fresh coronavirus infections and 98 deaths due to the virus. Active cases in the state stand at 86,639. In Dhar and Bhind district, 240 and 55 new COVID19 cases were reported in the last 24 hours, respectively.

Due to the rising cases of COVID19, hospitals are in a dire condition. The heart-wrenching reports of people dying of COVID19 usually narrate the tragedies of urban areas. This time, it is silently ravaging hinterland too.

Officials confirmed that villages in Madhya Pradesh have not escaped the COVID-19 second wave fury. “Around twenty per cent of COVID cases are coming from villages. Many villages have also sealed themselves,” Alok Kumar Singh, district magistrate of Dhar district, told Gaon Connection.

“Our teams have been visiting fields to survey people who are showing symptoms. We have been providing them with a Rs 110 kit, which contains six types of medicines prescribed by the Government of India,” Singh added.

The district magistrate of Dhar while reviewing the COVID situation in the district hospital. Photo: @PROJSDhar/twitter

Of the total district population of 2.6 million, about 50 per cent has been surveyed in just one week, informed Singh.

But, public health experts claim that is not enough. And they are also raising questions over the reversed testing pattern. “Last year, thirty per cent of tests were antigen, and the remaining RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction). The entire focus was on RT-PCR tests, which has reversed now,” Amulya Nidhi, a member of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, a non-profit working for public health and health rights, Madhya Pradesh, told Gaon Connection.

“If you get a negative report in the antigen test, you do not want to repeat the test. Also, it takes at least five days to get an RT-PCR report, for which one has to travel to a district hospital or block level health centre, which villagers find difficult to access,” he added.

“In the last year, the government has not been able to establish RT-PCR testing facilities at the district level as well as fully functional oxygen facilities. These need immediate attention,” said Nidhi.

Also Read: Where do villages figure in India’s oxygen strategy?

Testing troubles

As against the antigen test kit, which provides COVID test report within a few minutes (like a home-based pregnancy test kit), RT-PCR is considered a more reliable method of testing for the coronavirus but the latter’s result takes anything between 70 and 72 hours.

Even though rapid antigen tests are not as accurate as the standard RT-PCR tests, the former is being used as a primary testing method as it is less expensive and gives the result within a few minutes. It also does not need expert staff to administer it.

Also Read: Testing times for rural India as delay in RT-PCR test results may hasten the COVID spread

Besides, there are allegations that many testing labs are allegedly producing fake reports to keep the cases out of official records. A 55-year-old resident of Satna district, who did not wish to be named, told Gaon Connection that when she went for antigen testing on April 22, she was told that since she has mild COVID, the lab would write ‘negative’ on the report. Gaon Connection could not verify her allegation.

Villagers fear whoever is getting vaccinated gets fever. Photo: Twitter

Vaccine hesitancy in rural MP 

According to the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, over seven million (7,060,213) beneficiaries in Madhya Pradesh have been administered the first dose of the COVID19 vaccine. However, only slightly more than one million (1,162,769) beneficiaries have received the second dose.

“People think whoever is getting vaccinated gets fever. This is why they are avoiding getting vaccinated,” said Sharma of Bhind district, whose mother tested positive 10 days after she was administered the first dose of the COVID19 vaccine. Now, his father has symptoms.

“In villages, people do not want to get vaccinated. Recently, in Shahdol, as many as 169 people were vaccinated. Of those, at least thiry people developed a cold and fever after vaccination. These people are in fear,” informed Nidhi.

Villagers fear the vaccine might kill them, said Patidar. On their part, officials said they have been trying to spread awareness among villagers about vaccination, through advertisements and slogans.

Since Dhar is a tribal district “we have to make tribal people understand about COVID vaccination and testing through advertisement and slogans. There are many myths among villagers regarding vaccination,” said district magistrate Singh, adding that “We have put posters with the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination in villages to make villagers aware.”

Officials confirmed that villages in Madhya Pradesh have not escaped the COVID-19 second wave fury.

Meanwhile, reports of vaccine shortage are also doing the rounds. On April 29, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan, said the state would not start vaccinating the 18-45 age group on May 1, as they don’t have enough vaccine doses. It is expected to start from tomorrow, May 5.

“The state does not have vaccine stock, yet the government is focussing on starting vaccination for the eighteen-plus category. There are already many people who have not been administered the second dose of the vaccine,” said Nidhi.

He went on to add that the government does not have an idea what will happen if there is a surge of COVID cases in villages.

“If it wants to, the government can create testing facilities at the village level. During elections, booths are easily established at the village level. Why not testing facilities and vaccination centres can be established with that ease?” Nidhi asked.

Also Read: ASHAs brave the second wave of COVID19. Without masks, sanitisers and rightful remuneration