COVID-19: Combating Fears and Rumours in Rural Heartland


May, 2020

COVID-19: Combating Fears and Rumours in Rural Heartland

by Kasturi Samal & Vikas Prakash Joshi in Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Telangana, Odisha

Grocery kits being handed over by Aliazer Sabar, a resident of Targisingh village, Odisha

The nationwide lockdown from March 24, 2020, has had grave implications across the country – in urban as well as rural areas. With a presence in 641 villages spread across seven states, WOTR began documenting the concerns of rural India from early March. What we found were challenges in food security, health-related anxieties, concerns regarding returning migrant workers and misconceptions about the pandemic among rural communities.

Food security / Stocks running low a worrying trend

The village of Targisingh lies around 36 km from Gunupur block in Rayagada district, southern Odisha. The people of Targisingh depend on the Gunupur town for all their needs, including financial transactions, shopping and medical emergencies. The village is not easily accessible from Gunupur and is largely dominated by tribal communities. A sense of panic and helplessness hit the villagers when the news of COVID-19 broke across the country.

Aliazer Sabar (32), a resident of the village, works with the Odisha Livelihoods Mission as a community animator. Sabar lives with his wife Reni Sabar (26), his son and daughter. He fears the village will run out of food supply in the coming days. He says the food grains shop in the panchayat did  not have the required rations for the last three months.

“In the next seven days, the food stocks in most homes would be exhausted. I shudder at the thought of what will happen after that,”  Sabar says.  Cooking essentials — oil, potatoes and masalas — are in very short supply. While there is a harvest of sunflower, maize and vegetables, due to transport issues, farmers are selling them for lower prices. At present, there is nobody in the village who has a pass to go outside, which is also causing severe inconvenience to the sick, elderly and pregnant women.


Influx of Migrants: Fear and Social Isolation

In Rajasthan, WOTR works in the southwestern district of Udaipur and north eastern district of Karauli. Our Udaipur RRC Coordinator, Gyanprakash Berwal, says people in these two districts are worried about the return of migrants from cities. They are anxious about the uncertainty over the lockdown. A lack of mobility due to unavailability of passes adds to their woes.

“Udaipur is a district with a large population that migrates to Gujarat and Maharashtra, both states that have a very high number of COVID-19 positive cases. The people of the village are deeply worried that they too will contract the dreaded virus from the returning migrants. As a result, they are keeping away from the migrants. This is in fact leading to social isolation,” says Berwal.

Sabar from Targisingh village in Odisha thinks so too. According to Sabar, if the migrants who left the village for better opportunities in the cities return, they would infect the local community.

Misconceptions around COVID-19 an obstacle

In Jharkhand, relatively low literacy, various Naxal-affected pockets and a lack of awareness on COVID-19 has created immense difficulties. Sujaya Dangwar, WOTR’s Head of the Regional Resource Centre, in Jharkhand, points out that many migrants from the state are still stranded in various parts of the country.

When the pandemic broke out, Dangwar says, people had the wrong impression that they would not recover if they contracted the virus, and that an infected person would die immediately. There were rumors that even the village farm ponds had the virus and people just stopped drawing water from these ponds.

It was challenging for our Wasundhara Sevaks and Sevikas to debunk these misconceptions. People initially didn’t listen, as superstition and black magic still prevail in these parts. The majority of the families here depend on the weekly bazaars to sell their produce. But with the closure of the bazaars, the produce is piling up at home. As people cannot sell their produce, they are unable to even buy anything, raising fears of malnutrition.

In Rajasthan too, misconceptions are proving to be an obstacle. Many believed the lockdown would end soon, which meant that they had not stocked up essentials. A feeling of insecurity is on the rise as stocks of items in people’s homes are dwindling.

“There are hardly any shops open in the village. It is difficult to buy anything. Going to Udaipur is difficult as few people have mobility passes,” Udaipur RRC Coordinator Berwal complains.

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