‘Meating’ people’s cravings during Covid

As India entered the 21-day period of lockdown to curb the spread of Covid19, in Arunachal Pradesh two divergent developments took place.
The nationwide lockdown began on March 25 following the March 22 janata curfew announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But even before the prime minister’s announcement, the states of Nagaland and Mizoram had already decided to extend the curfew. The state government here had announced the continuation of the janata curfew from the evening of March 23 till March 31 which has since been extended.
With shop timings being regulated, the scramble for groceries began as people had a hard time sticking to social distancing measures. While the administration got strict with the implementation of the curfew, online delivery services swooped in to fulfill the shopping needs of residents of Capital Complex.
Doni Riba began his ‘Hungryji’ food delivery service in February of last year, filling in an area that Zomato specializes in. Having gained experience from Hungryji, he started flirting with the idea of a delivery service to cater to the town’s population.
While the development of the idea began in April last year, the Dukandada app was officially launched on March 10, just days before the country entered the lockdown period.
Since then, he and his team have been kept busy.

Doni Riba and his Dukandada team Pic sent by Doni

Doni Riba and his Dukandada team

Even before Dukandada though, 30-year-old Epie Jamoh had launched her online delivery service for Itanagar and its adjoining towns.
In January last year, U Tell Us was officially announced (think small-town Urban Clap). What started with a staff of 17, in one year’s time the company now has 37 employees providing various services including ambulances for hire.
Its CEO, Dhananjay Morang, said that since the lockdown began, they have seen a surge in orders.
“Earlier we used to get around 50 calls a day but now there are around 500 calls coming in daily,” Morang said.
Even though calls have increased, the relatively small staff means that they are able to fulfill only around 200-plus orders on a daily basis.
He said that the endorsement from chief minister Pema Khandu certainly played a role in bringing publicity to online services like U Tell Us and Dukandada.
The overwhelming response from the people meant that Riba had to close orders in the Dukandada app by 2 pm.
“We were getting around 300 orders at first but had to limit the number to ensure we are able to meet the demands,” said Riba.
In smaller towns where panic and rumours spread fast, Riba faced a unique problem when a number of his delivery staff stopped coming in to work.
“We had 15 delivery boys but most of them are not being allowed to leave their homes by their families,” he said.
Riba had to make rapid hirings to continue the service.
And while the businesses are doing well, they’ve had their own share of issues.
The services may have received the chief minister’s endorsement but on the ground, the constant stopping by police at checkpoints is hindering timely delivery.
Riba said that there seems to be a lack of coordination between the administration and the police.
“The police don’t seem to be aware of the administration’s orders regarding the lockdown,” he said, adding that things will get more confusing with the implementation of section 144 of the CrPc starting today.
The U Tell Us’ CEO is even more miffed with the police.
“In our meeting with the administration, we were told to ensure that the staff wears their uniform including the cap with the company logo. Even then the police stop us,” Morang said.
He alleged that recently two of the company’s female staff were stopped and ‘harassed’ by the cops.

Epie Jamoh of U Tell Us Pic from Facebook page

Epie Jamoh, the woman behind U Tell Us

Elsewhere in smaller towns and rural areas of the state, lockdown appears to have been better accepted.
In the Adi tribal areas, local residents began implementing the traditional lockdown system called ‘Pator/Motor’ a day before the national curfew.
In areas where the Galo people live, the villagers implemented the Ali-Ternam prohibiting the entry and exit of people into and from the villages two days after it begins.
In both cases, the lockdown begins with the reading of the liver of chickens- a ritual called haruspicy in Latin that was also practiced in ancient Rome and Greece- by a shaman.
These traditional lockdowns involve barricading villages with bamboo gates and the sacrificing of certain animals.
Ayem Modi, a local youth leader in Lower Dibang Valley district’s Dambuk town, and his friends have been taking turns on sentry duty since March 23.
“We have two teams of five people on roster guarding the gates,” he said.
The ancient pator ritual also involves the sacrificing of an animal- in this case, a dog -which is then hanged at the gates.
The fact that a dead dog was left to hang and rot in public space did not go down well with the district administration and the deputy commissioner had to issue an official order prohibiting it.
That has done little to deter villagers though.
“We don’t do this for celebrations. This ritual is done in times of calamities including epidemics that inflict animals,” Modi explained.
In Kamki village in West Siang district, no dogs were harmed but at least five chickens and one pig was sacrificed to keep the disease at bay.

Kamki Village Pic by Bomdo Kamki

The gate to Kamki village. (Pic by Bomdo Kamki)

Bomdo Kamki from the eponymous village had to cancel his plans to visit Itanagar when the Ali-Ternam was implemented. He is with 300 of his clansmen and women currently under the lockdown.
Both he and Modi said that these are not new to their tribes and that these traditions have been in place for generations. The belief is that the ritual keeps the bad spirits in abeyance and stops it from harming the villagers.
The ‘bad spirit’ in this case is the coronavirus.
As for their ration needs, the villages are better equipped considering that most families grow their own grains and vegetables. Many even keep chicken, pigs, and the bovine mithun which can feed the meaty desires.
“We only need to make sure that the supply of salt does not stop,” Kamki said.

COVID, community and challenges ahead

With the country stepping up efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for a nationwide lockdown, it has become imperative that the ramifications of not practicing self-quarantine is made clear to everyone.

Tuesday marked the first full day of the state-wide partial lockdown that was invoked by the Arunachal Pradesh state government. And while the government had advised the public to exercise caution, those appeals have landed on deaf ears with hordes of people choosing the mostly-empty roads of the capital to go on joy rides.

Most businesses in the capital did stay close but with government offices still officially remaining open, police and security personnel had a difficult time trying to convince people to put on their masks and stay home.

At the naka point at Ganga near the non-functioning clock tower, police had to stop several people (mostly young men and women in two-wheelers) and actually advise them to wear their masks even as all of them apparently had some urgent work somewhere or the other.

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In fact, in the morning hours, there were actually traffic jams across various places in the Capital Complex as people made a beeline to buy groceries and other commodities despite assurances from the government that they should refrain from hoarding. One source said that a prominent businessman from the capital had bought enough rice and other items to last an entire year.

The question to ask at this time is, are we as a state ready to deal with an invisible adversary?

INFRASTRUCTURAL CHALLENGES

Let’s face it, as far as our health infrastructure goes, the state is simply not equipped to deal with a possible outbreak. Given the fact that there has not been a single positive case reported from the state, we are not even dealing with the issue of containment of an outbreak but rather the reporting of a possibility of an outbreak.

From reports from the ground, at the various check gates, a normal temperature reading is enough to enter the state and go home. Although the state has been placed under a lockdown, i.e. no new ILPs are being issued, students and those who were travelling before the announcement have been allowed to return.

Given the fact that many students studying outside the state have been told to vacate their hostels and rented accommodation, it would be harsh to turn them away too. But given that young students are more likely to have stronger immune systems and be asymptomatic, a simple thermal reading of their temperature does not necessarily mean that they are not carrying the SARS-COV-2 virus that is responsible for the disease.

It is a very real possibility that even those not showing any visible symptoms may very well be carrying the virus. Even if those returning are responsible citizens and exercise self-quarantine, they are putting their family members at risk of being exposed to the virus, especially the elderly who have been found to be most prone to fatalities from the disease.

The ideal course of action in such scenarios will be to put everyone coming back under quarantine in isolation wards/centres and put under observation for 14 to 21 days- the incubation period of the disease.

However, is that a possibility in the real world?

Speaking with doctors and health department officials reveals that the state is definitely not equipped to cater to such demands.

Since screening began, over 21,000 people have entered or returned to the state. It’s a figure that state health machinery is simply not equipped to deal with.

So far, since people have been asked to exercise home-quarantine, isolation centres that have been identified by the state government have no dedicated staff to look after the possible inmates.

We have been fortunate that there have no positive cases yet. But in the case that even one person is tested positive, how will they be treated?

In the wake of this pandemic, a shocking revelation to come out was the fact that the state does not have a single functioning intensive care unit in any of its hospitals.

One senior doctor said that although the Tomo Riba Institute of Health & Medical Sciences does have a unit, it is devoid of any useful equipment.

CONFUSION IN COMMUNITY

One of the key steps that the state government had taken following the Janata Curfew of March 22 was to announce a partial lockdown to curb the unnecessary movement of people.

In a functioning democracy like India’s, invoking a full-on lockdown can never be a real possibility. At the end of the day, we have to rely on common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is a commodity hard to come by.

The morning after the state government issued the notification about the partial lockdown, the expected panic-purchasing began.

Even though it was stated that essential commodities including groceries and fuel will be available, it did little to deter residents from flocking to shops and piling up on a year’s supply of food. By Monday evening, the petrol stations had been exhausted.

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This happened despite a specific plea from the chief minister to not rush to petrol stations and the fact that people have been advised not to venture out of their homes. Even after being actively told not to go out, people still thought it necessary to fuel up their cars. It is unclear as to where they plan on travelling.

However, it must be pointed out that the government order left things a little ambiguous as well.

While it said that no public transportation will be permitted, the directive on the movement of private vehicles was unclear.

Since security personnel were asked to restrict the movement of private vehicles, they did as they had been told to. And as government offices remained open, it meant that several government employees had to stop and explain that they had to report to work.

The order had only said that commuting to hospitals and entry points would be permitted but was not clear on other vehicular movement.

More clarity on this front is required.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

In the face of these challenges, it is important that all stakeholders are consulted by the government and all efforts are made to work out steps to ensure the disease does not have an outbreak in the state.

The first step that needs to be taken is for the government to allocate at least two sites in each district for isolation to place all those who are returning to the state, regardless of whether they show symptoms or not.

The samples of the people need to be taken and sent for testing; it’s a task easier said than done though.

For one, there simply aren’t enough kits available in the state to take 21,000 tongue swabs.

Secondly, health workers who are working putting themselves on the line need proper protection.

It has already been reported that there is a major scarcity of Personal Protection Equipments across hospitals in the state and it must be ensured that the gap is met sooner rather than later. After all, if we are asking doctors and nurses to protect us, they should be provided with a fighting chance to do so.

The identifying of isolation centres and providing protective equipment go hand-in-hand.

It must be ensured that doctors, nurses, and all auxiliary staff working in these isolation centres will also have to remain in quarantine to avert the risk of them returning to their homes and possibly infecting their families. For them, the quarantine will remain in effect long after the pandemic has died down.

Another area that the government has to look into is ensuring that the state does not fall into a state of complete chaos. Unfortunately, if past experiences are anything to go by, that is an eventuality we must all be prepared for.

So, how does the government ensure that people are able to buy their groceries without a riot-like situation arising outside of grocery stores?

Regulating the timing of markets will only mean that more people will gather for limited periods of time to stock up on supplies that they do not require.

In the absence of household data even inserting a provision that only one person per household will be permitted to step out of their homes, will not help.

Again, one can only hope that civic sense prevails.

Apart from these challenges, what happens to the daily wage-earners who are dependent on hard cash for their day-to-day survival? Of course, they can be provided with a stipend but that will only benefit those registered with the labour board. What happens to the thousands who are not?

They will probably die of hunger alone.