It is difficult to assess the exact coronavirus situation in India because testing has been minimal, but, as of this morning, there have been 979 confirmed cases and 25 deaths. In a country where only 15% of deaths are reported, it is impossible to say what the reality might be. A report based on current trends claims that India could experience as many as 1.3 million coronavirus infections by mid-May. Most of the current cases are in the west of India, mainly in Delhi and Mumbai, with only a handful of cases reported so far in Odisha, but that might change.

On 24 March a three-week total lockdown was declared, with only four hours’ notice. Some had guessed this was coming and were prepared for it, but countless millions were taken by surprise and chaos ensued, people rushing to stock up on food, and to railway and bus stations to reach home before transport was cancelled. Many of the millions of migrant workers failed to get transport in time, and were faced with staying in Delhi or walking hundreds of miles home; those who travelled in crammed trains and buses may well be taking the virus back to their villages.

As can be imagined, the prospect is not good. Medical facilities and resources are totally inadequate. For example, almost all the ventilators in the country are in private hospitals, and most are already in use. There are insufficient beds, trained medical staff, equipment, medical supplies and protective clothing. But there are people who are trying to do what they can to help. And slowly, step by step, the government is setting in motion measures to try and minimise the damage. We had already passed on training material to both of our partners to help them prepare for dealing with coronavirus, and this has proved valuable.

The following is a brief resume of how the situation is affecting our project areas:

DELHI – where we support our partner, The Baliga Trust
All the Centres have been closed. The team has identified the poorest families in the five areas where they work. They have applied for a license to distribute food to the poorest in the area, and are awaiting that. They are also waiting for food rationing to be implemented and will be working in their communities to ensure that that is delivered to those who most need it. Many of the people in these areas are daily wage labourers with little savings, rudimentary housing, limited access to water and sanitation, and now no income. It will be extremely difficult for them to manage their survival, but the Baliga Trust is working with the government and other voluntary sector organisations to try and alleviate some of the worst suffering.

ODISHA – where we support several CHALE CHALO Projects
All our partner’s projects are on hold for the time being, and the teams are preparing help the coronavirus situation in their communities. We have little in the way of surplus funds to support a great deal of work, but we are doing what we can to help. We are continuing to pay the salaries of the staff that are directly involved in our projects, and it seems that other CHALE CHALO funders are prepared to do the same. This means that our partner is able to establish a team which knows the area, its people, and its problems, even though the situation is unfamiliar. CHALE CHALO feels that it has particular expertise to offer, namely the coordinated use of volunteers, an understanding of the resources and challenges of the area, and long-term working relationships with government officials and representatives.

Its first move was to assess where it could best be of service. There were areas where it was obvious that CHALE CHALO’s experience would me most telling:

1) The migrant workers who had returned to their villages need support. Some of them might be carrying the virus, and it is essential that they should be kept separate from the village for the duration of the lockdown. Arrangements for food, water, shelter and latrines are being made so that they can remain at the edge of the village until it is safe.
2) A network of volunteer support workers is being set up, and they need training in the self-protection protocols. This has to be carried out as they mean to carry on, with all possible attention to safety of themselves and others. A core group will be established to oversee the work that is undertaken and to make best possible use of resources.
3) Work is being carried out to ensure that all those who are BPL (below the poverty line) will receive the rations that they are entitled to, and that these are distributed fairly and safely. Arrangements for access to water and latrines, is also being organised, with instructions for safe use, the emphasis being on frequent washing of hands with soap and water, and safe distancing.
4) Liaison with government departments is being carried out to ensure, as far as is possible, that medical facilities are available to treat those who fall ill with the virus, and isolate them from their families and communities. This will require making schools and community buildings available and resourced, making arrangements for transportation of patients to and from hospital.
5) And perhaps most important, upscaling the the Community Radio programme to ensure that up-to-date and accurate information is available to local communities. These will include basic and constant instruction about hand-washing and safe distancing, as well as information about the disease, its symptoms, precautions, where to get help, support and treatment, etc.

This will need to be carried out with the safety of all volunteers foremost, and no one will be expected to carry out duties which they are not willing to do, and certainly not to take unnecessary risks.

No one knows what the coming months hold for our project areas. It might not be possible to carry out all of this work. It might well be that the government provides all the support and resources necessary, but our partners will be there to do everything they can to ensure government departments carry out their responsibilities and that any gaps are filled as far as possible. We will be keeping in touch with them and their work, and will do all we can to support them.

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