“We had to take the help of the local police and move them by ambulance on April 6 to Jhalawar for testing, which could only be done by the evening, further delaying matters,” recalled Dr. Raees. On April 7, three of the five samples taken proved positive, all symptomatic. Dr. Raees and his staff were also tested and put in quarantine, thus closing the CHC until doctors from neighbouring hospitals arrived.
This set in motion a chain of events that were to prove decisive in the containment and eventual elimination of the virus from Pidawa. “In hindsight, we may have been a bit harsh in imposing curfew over the entire town,” reminisced Sidharth Sihag, Jhalawar District Collector. “We were all in a learning curve about the virus at that time, and didn’t have any other protocols to go by,” he added. He and his Rapid Response Team descended on Pidawa moments after the first positive reports came, and closed the town completely from the midnight of April 7-8. And then began an extensive testing programme beginning with the family, neighbours, street by street, and mohalla by mohalla.
Once another five positive cases appeared it was decided to set up a sample collection centre at Pidawa. Constantly moving people was proving to be a logistical nightmare. A local college was converted into a sample collection centre. Another seven tested positive, and in a matter of days from zero the case count had reached 15, raising stress levels and questions about the source. In the process of testing and enquiring about the roots of the contagion, a travel history cropped up. On March 18, some members of the family had gone to Indore for trousseau shopping, as well as to get supplies for a grocery store. And then, others had gone to nearby Kota too, for the upcoming “wedding of my niece Arshi,” said Riazullah, brother of the deceased Khalida Bi. The wedding was scheduled for March 23 but postponed when Rajasthan announced its lockdown on March 21. In the meantime, and unknown to all, the virus had entered the family and slowly begun to make its way around.
Shravan Rajawat, Pidawa Sub-Divisional Magistrate, was the administrative local point man and recalled suggesting to the Collector that women should also be extensively tested. “Unlike other places, the women in Dalelpura, the area of Pidawa most affected, are not house bound and are actively moving around, socially or otherwise,” he said. While it is debatable if data can back that assertion, the spread was nevertheless quick, albeit within a close circle. Almost all the cases were either family, neighbours, or nearby associates. Sohan Lal, the family sharecropper also tested positive, as did his wife and child. A neighbour of Mr. Lal, suffering from paralysis, also tested positive. In all, Pidawa saw 20 positive cases, which for a town of about 14,000 is enough to cause a major scare scenario. And then the demographics of those who tested positive gave rise to yet more unwanted scares.
“Don’t forget that the first positive cases in Pidawa appeared the day after the stoning incidents in Indore,” remarked an official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Coupled with the Tablighi allegations doing the digital rounds, we were sitting on another social disaster,” the official added. Pidawa has a delicate demographic balance, and hasn’t been immune from the longer term contagion. Those tensions were revived in early April and the administration was hard-pressed to watch the spread of both viruses, the digital as well as the novel coronavirus. The curfew certainly helped, in keeping people indoors and putting testing procedures in place, but it did create problems for families in terms of availability of milk and vegetables.
And even in that an avenue was found to fan the flames of the older virus. As the whole town was under curfew, the supply to each locality came to be staggered, giving rise to allegations that the ‘other’ were getting access on a more regular basis than the ‘own’. Curfew rationalisation sorted out that insinuation from spreading further, but not before causing administrative stress. “It had us on the edge for sure, but luckily better sense prevailed,” said the same official.
In fact, the local administration and medical authorities now recall with a great deal of satisfaction the cooperation they received from the public. The family that initially tested positive was singled out for praise in terms of its calmness and cooperative attitude once the contagion was explained to them. They were taken to Kota, the divisional headquarters, in the first days of quarantine and treatment, for that was the protocol established across Rajasthan. After a few days, and the Kota Medical College feeling the strain of increasing numbers, they were shifted to Jhalawar Medical College for the remainder of their treatment, quarantine and repeated testing. Even as all patients continued to provide negative samples subsequently, the drama didn’t cease around them.
On May 7 a bunch of samples arrived at the laboratory of the Department of Microbiology at Jhalawar Medical College. When opened a vial was found to have spilled, causing a major scare among the laboratory technicians. They refused to touch the samples for fear of infecting themselves. “The HoD handled the situation brilliantly,” recounted Mr. Sihag, the Collector. Yogendra Tiwari, HoD Microbiology, laughed off the praise, but did admit to the fear hovering among the laboratory technicians. “The vials didn’t have screw-on caps, so one of them spilled its sample over the others, and one didn’t know whether it was an infected case. So I had to handle the whole bunch myself,” he said. He cleaned all the samples himself, and then decontaminated the entire laboratory. “We resumed work after fumigation, invalidated that sample, had it taken and tested again,” he added. About 292 samples were repeat tested, and only then was Pidawa declared free of the novel coronavirus.
While most of the district administration and medical authorities were reticent about claiming a major success in containing and eliminating the novel coronavirus from a remote small town near the heart of India, Dr. Tiwari was unabashed.
“The Pidawa model is something to be proud of,” he declared. Mofussil India scored a point, and left a marker, without any fanfare.
(The writer is a former
Member of Parliament)