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COVID-19 | ‘Sarpanch Squad’ keeps the virus at bay in Rajasthan villages

Assistance to those in need, a ban on gatherings, fines for superstitious practices and other such efforts by sarpanch Shakti Singh and his team of 100 volunteers have prevented the spread of infection in Kaliyawas gram panchayat

June 27, 2021 / 04:02 PM IST
A COVID-19 checkpoint manned by volunteers in Kaliyawas gram panchayat (Image: Sohail Khan)

A COVID-19 checkpoint manned by volunteers in Kaliyawas gram panchayat (Image: Sohail Khan)

The second coronavirus wave has been unsparing, with record daily infections and deaths bringing the country to its knees. Villages that escaped the worst of the first wave have been hit hard across India and Rajasthan’s rural areas, too, have borne the brunt of the virus.

As daily infections and deaths spiralled, Kaliyawas gram panchayat in Bhilwara district managed to keep the deadly virus at bay—it has reported only four coronavirus cases this year.

The credit for keeping Kaliyawas almost virus-free amid one of the deadliest outbreaks goes to its 43-year-old sarpanch Shakti Singh and his team of 100 youth.

They are hard to miss. They wear identical white T-shirts with Singh's face splashed on them. Singh is the district vice president of the BJP and a former office-holder of its youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. He had unsuccessfully sought a ticket to contest from Asind in the previous assembly elections.

The volunteers are businessmen, farmers, teachers and even some government employees. The T-shirts, Singh said, are a kind of “curfew pass” as are instantly recognised as people deputed on COVID-19 duty.

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Ever since the government imposed weekend curfews (Jan Anushasan Pakwada), the team has been working round the clock to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the gram panchayat that has three villages and 8,000 residents.

Wear face masks and equipped with sanitisers, Singh and his team go door-to-door daily, spreading awareness about the prevention of COVID-19, reporting symptomatic cases to the district administration, maintaining records of the population and providing help to those in need.

“So far we have been successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus in the gram panchayat. Only four persons have so far tested positive for coronavirus in the entire area this year. The situation was worse last year with 54 persons contracting the infection,” Singh said.

He and three members of his family were among those infected last year and were in home isolation for more than 15 days. “We somehow survived and that was when I decided to do whatever I can to protect the people of our villages from contracting the infection,” he said.

Volunteers at a checkpoint ensure those entering the village are masked and don't show signs of infection. (Images: Sohail Khan) Sarpanch Shakti Singh and his team of volunteers, in their trademark white T-shirts, ensure those entering the village are masked and don't show signs of infection. (Images: Sohail Khan)

Anti-corona squad

Asked about the campaign to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Singh said, “We have formed five-member teams of volunteers. Each team is assigned a particular task such as patrolling the boundaries of the gram panchayat in eight-hour shifts to prevent people from entering the villages without health checkups and ensuring that the villagers strictly follow guidelines issued by the government, including that of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing.”

The volunteers don’t allow more than three people to from enter temples at one time and only four people can attend funerals. They also ensure that people handling the bodies wear PPT kits.

Singh has converted his car into an ambulance to transport infected persons in case of an emergency and his farmhouse into a quarantine centre for people who contract the virus but don’t have space for isolation.

He has created a WhatsApp Group comprising the volunteers, gram sevaks, health workers and other functionaries for easy communication and decision making.

Besides arranging for medical equipment such as oximeters and thermal scanners, the volunteers distribute face masks and sanitisers free of cost to the residents.

Whether it is arranging food for the needy, coordinating with the medical staff or ensuring that the people practice social distancing, Singh is the person for it.

Volunteers also discourage villagers from venturing out of their houses unnecessarily and gathering in public places. They have smeared benches installed near public places such as panchayat bhavan, tehsil office and parks with oil and black paint to prevent people from idling away. Those smoking in public are fined Rs 500.

Singh said the volunteers were also lending their services to nearby villages as well. When a COVID-19 patient died recently in Jetpura area of the Paldi gram panchayat, the volunteers helped with cremation in keeping with the protocol. The family of the deceased lived in Bengaluru and could not travel because of the lockdown.

An isolation ward in Kaliyawas village for those who can't quarantine at home. (Image: Kshitiz Gaur) Volunteers at an isolation ward set up in Kaliyawas village for those who can't quarantine at home. (Image: Kshitiz Gaur)

Tackling vaccine hesitancy

Singh said the biggest challenge was to convince the people to take vaccines against coronavirus. Initially, villagers were afraid of the side-effects and some even feared they would die. Singh led by example. He and his family members were among the first people to take the shots.

“We motivate the people by saying that the persons who follow government guidelines will get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and those who flout them would face social boycott in their villages. Our efforts brought results and many people are now enthusiastically coming forward to join our campaign,” Singh said.

A sign warns that outsiders caught within village limits will be fined Rs 5,000 (Image: Kshitiz Gaur) A sign warns that outsiders are banned from entering Hathikhera village and those caught would be fined Rs 5,000 (Image: Kshitiz Gaur).

The superstition hurdle

Singh, who is a graduate, also took steps to stop superstitions coming in the way of preventing the spread of the virus.

He announced a Rs 5,000-fine for people resorting to superstitious practices such as “black magic” or approaching quacks for COVID-19 treatment.

During their daily rounds, his team members make announcements, urging people to desist from superstitious practices and seek medical help in the event of an infection.

“A team of doctors is visiting the villages every day. People are urged to consult the medical staff in case of any health issue,” said Singh.

Bhilwara District Collector Shiv Prasad M Nakate has hailed Singh’s model. “The state government encourages involvement of public representatives in the fight against coronavirus,” Nakate said. Those working at grassroots levels, especially sarpanchs, have helped gram panchayat-level core committees to ensure compliance with the COVID-19  guidelines by helping in enforcing containment zones, door-to-door health surveys, medicine-kit distribution and vaccination drives, he said. “Shakti Singh has contributed significantly in this struggle,’ Nakate said.

— With inputs from Kshitiz Gaur

(The author is Udaipur-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)



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Sohail Khan
first published: Jun 27, 2021 01:30 pm
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