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Caregiving , Health , Politics & Policy , Reporter's Notebook , South Asia

In rural India, stricken by pandemic, necessity of invention fills in for the state: Reporter’s Notebook

by Puja Changoiwala February 1, 2022

The Maharashtra village of Savangi Zade, commonly known as Savangi, is an almost picture-perfect portrait of rural India — a land straddling the past and the present. 

Bullock carts amble next to rumbling motorcycles; farm animals laze around their mechanical replacements; mud paths snake around tar roads: The bygone and the contemporary seem to be in harmony in Savangi, if you don’t look too close. Most of the women appear to exist in an older era than the men. Their heads are modestly covered with the loose ends of their saris, while the men move about in shirts and trousers, shunning the age-old dhoti. 

I travelled 800 kilometers to visit Savangi. I had learned about the deaths of two women in the village from a short news clip in a local paper. It was almost a throwaway item, published as it was during the height of the devastating second wave of Covid-19 in India last spring: two women dead from Covid-19, among thousands of others. 

But the story still intrigued me. The bodies of the two women were highly decomposed when they were found, even though they lived with their immediate family. It felt worth digging into the circumstances behind their unsung deaths. I suspected that there were deep, patriarchal forces at play, and this suspicion turned out to be correct.

My primary source was a young man in Savangi, who asked me to follow the kutcha, a pockmarked road off the side of an immaculate highway, until I spotted a school — the jewel of Savangi, which stood at the entrance to the village, advertising its progress.

As I waited for my source to show up, I noticed that the school’s walls were painted in bright colors, displaying artwork that formed little morality tales — an image of a toilet with a banner calling it “Dignity House,” to discourage open defecation; a picture of a pony-tailed girl and a boy in shorts, sweeping the floor, instructing people to “Keep your surroundings clean.” Another painting depicted a famous Aesop’s fable — “The Crow and The Pitcher.” Necessity is the mother of invention, the fable concludes. This was an apt takeaway for a village that had to get creative to save itself from the pandemic. 

“I turned this school into a quarantine center,” Ajay Kude, the village head, told me later that day. He was referring to the months of May and June last year, two months during which the pandemic killed nearly 200,000 people across the country. Decades of neglecting rural health infrastructure took its toll and by May 7, half the infections and deaths in India were being reported from its villages, a “worrying” trend considering the acute shortage of healthcare providers and basic necessities like hospital beds in the country’s rural areas. Abandoned bodies of suspected Covid-19 patients started littering the riverbanks in rural India, creating a horrific spectacle of death, disease, and destitution.

Villagers like Kude were forced to get inventive. The nearest hospital was several kilometers away, so he turned the local school into a quarantine center. Doctors were away at the hospital, so he turned himself into a healthcare worker. He arranged for an oximeter, which would end up being the only one available in the village, and would sterilize and re-sterilize it when checking the oxygen saturation levels of those demonstrating Covid-19 symptoms. 

Kude even turned himself into a one-man pharmaceutical operation. He’d write down lists of medicines for the ill, which they’d travel to buy from private hospitals. When he could, he’d give out medicine on his own: paracetamol, which the government failed to deliver; folic acid tablets, as the ones sent by the state were unusable. And he went door to door, creating awareness about the disease and its precautions, as health officials never established a single testing camp in the village. 

Confronted with the worst pandemic that India had seen in a century, Savangi residents found that the modern healthcare system was failing them, and turned instead to an ancient institution: the village chief, who decided he would refer them to the overwhelmed government-run hospitals only if a case got too complicated. “But, thankfully, we did not need to refer anyone,” Kude said. “I am also a pharmacist, so I knew about the treatment. I took a risk, but I treated all of them.”

All, except for two.

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