Liquor shops open in Guwahati (Image: Twitter @ANI)
In last couple of weeks news of racist attacks on people from the Northeast living in different parts of India surfaced in large numbers. Unfortunately, racial attacks on people from the Northeast in other parts of India is not a new phenomenon. The reason for the attacks this time is because many uninformed people are blaming the citizens from the Northeast for spreading COVID-19. That a majority of people from the Northeast share Mongoloid features is the reason for this insensitivity.
The irony here — in addition to that it exposes a lack of awareness — is that the states in the Northeast have managed the outbreak relatively better than some states in the mainland.
The number of positive cases in Assam is 54, out of which 35 have recovered. Meghalaya has 12 cases, out of which 10 have recovered. Manipur had two positive patients, and both of them have recovered. Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram have one case each, and both have recovered. Nagaland and Sikkim have not tested any positive cases so far. Tripura, with 64 positive cases and two recoveries, has the most number of cases in the Northeast. Put together, five of the eight Northeast states are COVID-19-free, and two COVID-19-related deaths have occurred so far.
While the national lockdown has managed to arrest the spread of infection in the Northeast, the state of affairs due to this lockdown is depressing. In Arunachal Pradesh, because of the exclusive policies of the state government, more than 65,875 Chakmas and Hajong are pushed on the brink of starvation.
The lockdown has affected schools as well, and while most of the schools in the country has turned to online classes, students in the Northeast might not be a part of this process. To summarise the words of a teacher from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Shillong campus, ‘poor Internet connectivity means that the students in the Northeast are have to sit out of this mode of teaching’.
The healthcare infrastructure across the region is poor and this has severely affected a scientific approach to the fight against COVID-19. Lack of medical facilities, healthcare infrastructure, inadequate testing, among others, has only increased the fear among the masses. An IndiaSpend report highlights why a low number of cases from the Northeast, or the fact that there are zero positive cases, must have administrations letting their guard down.
In Meghalaya the number of cases is increasing and secondary contacts are not properly tracked. Meghalaya is testing only 99 samples a day — this is grossly inadequate for its 2.65 million population.
Every Northeast state shares an international border with either Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal or Myanmar. The border with Bangladesh is by and large sealed. However, the open international borders continue to pose a threat to the region, especially the borders with Myanmar, which at present has 162 reported positive cases.
Manipur shares a 398-km international border with Myanmar. Chief Minister N Biren Singh has ordered special surveillance of the international border with Myanmar that is contagious with five of its hill districts — Ukhrul, Tengnoupal, Kamjong, Churachandpur and Chandel. In this line, the state government has erected a 220-metre fence in Churachandpur district, on the international border with Myanmar.
Nagaland does not have a testing lab, which prompted the Kohima bench of the Gauhati High Court to order two testing labs in the state. The Indian Air Force has ferried multiple consignments of medical items to the state to tackle the health crisis.
Tripura is operating mobile sample collection kiosks. The state that has a population of no less than 4 million has tested only 5,850 people so far.
Amidst all these happenings the migrant workers and daily wage earners are facing an extraordinary challenge. The lockdown has meant no work and survival is a challenge here. Agricultural activities too have suffered a serious blow in the region. The price of the essential items have skyrocketed in many pockets. The sealing of state borders led to a scarcity of vegetables, meat proteins and other items. Though restrictions are starting to be lifted, it’ll be a while before things get back to the old normal.
Though the Northeast has fewer positive cases, the true picture can be determined only once testing is increased. The states of the northeast must work hard to place a better healthcare system, and that will be instrumental in the fight against COVID-19.Nazimuddin Siddique is an Assam-based independent researcher. Views are personal.