People forced to make do as virus ravages rural hinterland

In a village in northern India engulfed by Covid-19, the sick lie on cots under a tree, glucose drips hanging from a branch. Cows graze all around, while syringes and empty medicine packets are strewn on the ground.

There is no doctor or health facility in Mewla Gopalgarh, Uttar Pradesh.

There is a government hospital nearby but it has no available beds and the villagers say they cannot afford private clinics.

Instead, village practitioners of alternative medicine have set up an open-air clinic where they distribute glucose and other remedies to patients with symptoms of Covid-19.

Some believe lying under the neem tree, known for its medicinal properties, will raise their oxygen levels.

There is no scientific basis for this belief or for some of the other remedies being offered.

"When people become breathless, they have to go under trees to raise their oxygen levels," said Mr Sanjay Singh, whose 74-year-old father died last week after developing a fever.

Mr Singh said his father was not tested and died in two days.

"People are dying and there is nobody to look after us," he said.

India's devastating second wave of infections, which has brought even hospitals in big cities such as Delhi to breaking point, is ripping through the country's vast rural hinterland where healthcare is threadbare.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is facing criticism for failing to prepare for the second wave, said last week that the pandemic was spreading fast in the villages and urged people not to ignore the symptoms.

"Get the test done, isolate yourself and start medication on time," he said.

But, in Mewla Gopalgarh, people are making do as best they can.

One woman borrowed an oxygen cylinder from a neighbour whose condition had improved slightly, her family said.

"Truth is, there has been no Covid-19 testing. We have tried but they told us they don't have enough staff," said 48-year-old Yogesh Talan, a former village headman.

In Basi, about two hours' drive from New Delhi, about three-quarters of its 5,400 people are sick and more than 30 have died in the past three weeks.

The village has no healthcare facilities, no doctors and no oxygen canisters. And, unlike India's social-media-literate urban population, residents cannot appeal on Twitter for help.

"Most deaths in the village have been caused by a lack of oxygen," said Mr Sanjeev Kumar, the newly elected head of the farming community.

"The sick are being rushed to the district headquarters and those extremely sick patients have to travel about four hours."

He added that many do not make it in time.

The story of Basi has been playing out in villages across India as the virus continues its deadly surge.

Rural areas, where over 65 per cent of India's 1.3 billion people live, had been spared in the first wave of the pandemic but are now facing devastating numbers of infections.

Three-quarters of all districts in India are reporting a positivity rate of more than 10 per cent, a health official said on May 11, an indication of how widely the virus had spread.

In some rural areas, bodies are being buried in shallow graves or given up to rivers and the sick have little hope other than herbal remedies and amateur doctors.

Mr Kidwai Ahmad, from Sadullahpur village in Uttar Pradesh, said the situation is "disastrous" with people dying all around in his neighbourhood.

"There is so much poverty all around that people can't even afford decent cremations. They often tie big stones to the bodies and throw them in the river," he told AFP. "Others don't even bother with that and just throw the bodies in as they are.

"Some are just burying their dead in shallow graves and not even waiting to see if crows or dogs feed on them."

The sick are staying at home taking "herbal concoctions", Mr Ahmad said. Clinics, if people can travel to them, are low on beds, medicines and oxygen. "People have been left to die," he added. "This is the India which is hidden from everyone."

Reuters, AFP


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