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As natives return, Himachal's coronavirus woes may just begin

By Ashwani Sharma
May 07, 2020 17:30 IST
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More than 1.20 lakh Himachalis have already returned home in less than a week’s time. There is a list of 21,000 others approved for return, and at least two lakh more are still awaiting official nod for their return. 

Will this influx see a spike in coronavirus numbers? That is the administration’s main worry, reports Ashwani Sharma. 

IMAGE: A view of Shimla under lockdown. Photograph: Pradeep Kumar.

Himachal Pradesh Principal Secretary (disaster management) Onkar Sharma, who is the designated nodal authority to facilitate the return of Himachalis stranded elsewhere in India, hasn’t slept for the past five days. 

“I have handled disaster situations, not once but a hundred times. But, this one is terribly nerve-wracking looking at the number of people desperate to come back,” he tells media-persons amid answering endless phone calls. 

 

The calls are pouring in non-stop not just from those stranded due to the lockdown but also their families. Sharma is finding it impossible to answer every single call or reply to WhatsApp messages pouring into his phone. 

This is a real reflection of the gravity of the situation prevailing in the state’s official machinery, which on one hand is trying to combat the coronavirus spread -- fortunately under control -- and at the same time work out plans for a mega reverse movement of distressed natives. 

There is alarm, too. More the number of people coming from other places and hotspots, greater the risk in the next few weeks, warn field health workers in the districts. 

Official reports suggest more than 1.20 lakh persons have already returned home in less than a week’s time. There is a list of 21,000 others approved for return, and at least two lakh more are still awaiting official nod for their return. 

Ironically, not just those stranded, even others who had left Himachal Pradesh for good are now looking to their homecoming, as they view the state as being safer for them in the current situation. 

There is no state in the country from where calls are not coming in asking for help. The main places include Lucknow, Mumbai, Goa, Bengaluru, Chennai, north-east including Assam and Manipur, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Gurugram. 

Onkar Sharma has a team of 12 nodal officers to help him, yet the situation looks like beyond anyone’s imagination. 

“Look at states like Bihar, Maharashtra or even UP, the officials have already given up. Even my team is fizzling out except for me standing up to the situation,” he says. 

Now the main worry is over coronavirus infection returning to Himachal Pradesh, after the number of active cases have been reduced to just 2, of a total 46 tested positive so far. 

On Monday a 30-year old youth working in a private company in Delhi, who had returned to his home in Mandi district on April 29, tested positive. He was on home quarantine, yet developed symptoms of infection. Two other youths who travelled with him have also been put under institutional quarantine and the entire area has been sealed. His aged parents have also been subjected to tests. 

On Wednesday, one youth who had returned from Delhi to his village in Kangra district on April 27, tested positive. He had travelled in a taxi with four others and the police is trying to contact trace them and the also taxi driver who brought them to Himachal Pradesh. 

More shocks came on Thursday when the mother of a 21 year old youth who died two days ago also tested positive. 

Two youths who came home to Chamba have also been tested positive. 

So within the  past 100 hours Himachal Pradesh’s number spiked to 46. 

Before this, Himachal Pradesh had had no positive case for the past 10 days and Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur was planning to declare the state coronavirus free. 

“It’s is definitely a blow to the state’s efforts but it has a responsibility to bring back those stranded elsewhere and were managing without food and shelter at places still in the red zone. We brought back students from Kota. All were subjected to COVID test before sending them to home quarantine,” Sharma revealed. 

How to protect the state against a second spurt of coronavirus? This is a big question facing officialdom as returnees carry with them risk of infection. 

Says Thakur, “As per protocol devised, we are subjecting every single returnee to thorough medical testing. This is followed by a strict home quarantine schedule. Health teams will visit them, the police will keep surveillance on their movements and local gram pradhans, ward members will oversee every person who is required to strictly and mandatorily follow the quarantine or face action.” 

The state’s health secretary R D Dhiman also sounded an alert to those returning home and told them to act responsibly or they will themselves turn victims of this virus apart from resulting in its community spread. 

The fear, however, is that gains achieved through the 42-day lockdown will get jeopardised once the infection enters families, and those in close contact. 

The opposition Congress has accused the government of a complete mishandling of the coronavirus situation and doubts if the active cases have really come down to two. 

“The exact number of coronavirus cases will be known only if you start testing and managing the cases. There is no testing happening even at the end of lockdown 2.0. Those entering the state are subjected to thermal testing. The actual carriers of this infection may develop systems later for which no COVID testing is done. It’s a huge risk and grave lapse,” says Asha Kumari, Dalhousie MLA who is also AICC incharge for Punjab. 

She quotes the examples of Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Delhi which had done massive testing. 

“We are happy the state government has decided to bring Himachalis back but there is now a need to step up effective testing at entry points, sending them to institutional quarantine and ensuring their isolation instead of passing the buck on to them,” she advises.

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