The ‘ruthless containment model’ saved Bhilwara from becoming ‘Wuhan of India’
At the onset of Coronavirus outbreak in India, Rajasthan’s Bhilwara was called the ‘epicenter’ of the pandemic. However, with the ‘ruthless containment model’, the region miraculously became an inspiration for the rest of the country to contain the virus. The Bridge correspondent Karan Bhardwaj speaks to District Magistrate Rajendra Bhatt who was at the helm of affairs of containment strategies.
TBI: When the COVID-19 situation erupted two months back, there was strong fear of a possible disastrous outbreak from Bhilwara region. On the contrary, with your timely and strict actions, Bhilwara emerged as the role model to contain Coronavirus. What was your strategy?
RB: Coronavirus was first reported in Bhilwara when doctors from a private hospital tested positive on March 18, 19 this year. As per records, these doctors had seen 7,000 patients. There must be around additional 3,000 patients who were given home consultancy but there was no record about them. So, we had a staggering number of 10,000 people who came in contact with these doctors. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how many of them got infected or had already spread the virus. With such uncertainty, Bhilwara was being touted as the next ‘Italy’ or ‘Wuhan of India’. Community spread was written on the wall. In our response, we were trying to protect our people as well as other districts to prevent community spread of coronavirus. We had no choice but to take ruthless steps. We immediately isolated the district, sealed boundaries and imposed curfew. We requested the state government to urgently suspend movement of transport. No passenger trains, private or public buses were allowed to enter Bhilwara. Since the epicenter was a private hospital in the city area, we also cut off the urban region from the rural side. Next, we quarantined all 7,000 people on record who had visited the hospital. Hotspots were declared and no movement was allowed in the vicinity of one kilometer.
TBI : How did you manage to monitor them?
RB: We developed a robust monitoring system. Locals, teachers, current or retired government employees, panchayat members and others volunteered to be Corona Warriors to monitor people who were put under quarantine. WhatsApp groups were made for each village or sub division where corona fighters would post their images of surveillance. In ‘Maha Curfew’, we didn’t even allow any movement of people regarding essential services. Everything was supplied to people’s doorsteps. As we witnessed 55 days of curfew, we could completely contain Coronavirus in the region. This format was later adopted by other states like Haryana, MP.
TBI: What is the present situation of Coronavirus in Bhilwara after the return of migrants?
RB: Now, we have some positive cases of migrants who have come from different cities. They have been put under mandatory quarantine of 15 days. No new case emerged from the people of Bhilwara. People have been cooperative. They are cautious and taking guidelines seriously. Maintaining social distancing, wearing masks and using hand sanitizers are a must. Any violation is set to invoke strict action by the administration.
TBI: Being the textile hub with hundreds of manufacturing units, how is Bhilwara reopening now? There’s also a fear of exploitation of workers and further unemployment.
RB: All industries are functional now. Migrants who have completed quarantine period of 15 days have been given employment under MNREGA. Our administration has played role of a catalyst. We called a meeting between Labour Unions and Industrialists and an MOU was signed between them. Industries were willing to offer Rs 2,600 to labourers but we managed to raise it to Rs 4,000. Besides, many labourers who specialize in textiles have gone back to Bihar, UP and Bengal. We are hopeful of their comeback soon as many of them are willing to return. It is important to note Bhilwara was the first district to impose curfew and was also the first to reopen industries, and subsequently resolve the employment issue.
TBI: You couldn’t go to your residence for several days. How challenging was it personally to be out there, away from family?
RB: This kind of pandemic has struck after 100 years. We do not have any experience of handling it. Since the crisis was severe in our region, our first motto was to save the community. It was a mammoth task to coordinate amongst all departments at the regional and state level. I requested my wife to go to my parents’ house because my parents are old. I stayed back here with my daughter who supported me in managing personal chores. She would send me food in the office as I hardly got to meet her. All of us had a shared goal: to prevent Bhilwara from becoming Italy and turning it into a role model.
TBI: Several nations have faced spread of coronavirus with the opening of education system. What do you think India should do in this regard?
RB: I think educational institutions can be opened in different stages. Schools can reopen with senior students as they can take precautions and practise social distancing. Same goes for university students. Junior students and kids at playways can wait for the safer time.
TBI: Do you think lockdown can be imposed now with surging cases?
RB: It is not possible to keep people indoors now. For how long can you do it? People in other nations have protested against the lockdown. We already have had 3-4 lockdowns. It is the people who will have to learn to live with the virus till the vaccine comes. It is a fact that the virus can spread due to some ignorant people but I urge administration to take strict action against the offenders. Those who are not abiding by the laws and recommendations can be injurious to themselves as well as others. As a society, we have to be more responsible. Youngsters have to take care of children and elderly people.