Coronavirus outbreak: How little Vaijapur beat a big virus

Updated: May 24, 2020, 18:59 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

Even as Maharashtra continues to be the worst hit state in India, a small town in Aurangabad district has managed to stay COVID zero

Thousands of daily wage labourers passing through Vaijapur are offered assistance by teams formed to provide them with food, water, and get them screened for a fitness certificate free of cost
Thousands of daily wage labourers passing through Vaijapur are offered assistance by teams formed to provide them with food, water, and get them screened for a fitness certificate free of cost

In 1728, when the Marathas were denied collection of chauth and sardeshmukhi (two types of taxes that were an important source of revenue for their administration), a war was declared against Nizam-ul-Mulk or the Viceroy of the Deccan. In February that year, under the leadership of Peshwa Bajirao, the Mughal leader was defeated in the battlefield of Palkhed, a small town about 12 km from Vaijapur in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra. Almost three centuries later, Vaijapur is witnessing another battle. This time, against the Coronavirus.

On May 21, the Union Health Ministry said that the tally of positive cases for the novel Coronavirus in Aurangabad district had increased to 1,218, with the death toll hitting 45. None of these cases, however, were reported from Vaijapur. The small town with a minuscule population of 3,11,373, has kept the disease at bay since the first case was reported in Maharashtra on March 9. Today, the state is the country's worst hit, with 44,582 cases and 1,517 deaths, out of India's total of 1,25,101 cases and 3,720 deaths.

Door-to-door screening was initiated after the nationwide lockdown was imposed
Door-to-door screening was initiated after the nationwide lockdown was imposed

Self-imposed curfew
On March 22, when the Janata Curfew was imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, local authorities, doctors, policemen as well as NGO workers unanimously decided to set up a neighbourhood warden system in Vaijapur. This model, which first originated in Taiwan, has won widespread recognition for tackling COVID-19. Relying on a combination of preparedness, technology, and transparency, Taiwan has managed to limit the number of reported cases to 108 (with just a single Coronavirus-related death).

Ramesh Bornare, the Vaijapur MLA, imposed a complete lockdown on March 23. "We created WhatsApp groups with police officers, sarpanchs, local administration and doctors. Everyone was told that there would be a total lockdown for four days. No one could step out of their homes, not a single shop was allowed to remain open, local dispensaries were shut; the only facility that remained open was the 100-bedded Sub District Hospital (SDH)," says Bornare, a first-time Shiv Sena MLA, who had a landslide win in last year's assembly polls. Bornare himself adhered to the self-isolation rules. "Slowly, essential services started opening, and we realised we needed to reach out to people who needed help. I, along with 3,200 party volunteers, started distributing food kits to homes. Till date, we have managed to send out 7,000 kits, of which 2,000 contained 5 kg wheat flour along with 11 other grocery items," Bornare adds.

Residents of Vaijapur being screened at the city's Ganesh temple
Residents of Vaijapur being screened at the city's Ganesh temple

For frontline workers
Next, it was time to expand support. The community came together and volunteers were appointed to offer phase-wise relief to the strained healthcare staff and police force. Nilesh Parakh, head of NGO Jain Social Group, says, "There are eight check posts in Vaijapur, where cops were deployed. After seeking permission from the police, collector and local administration, we offered to station our volunteers here, realising that the police were working hard and desperately needed a break." But the police department declined the offer. "It was impossible for them to retreat the entire force, so they sent home junior officers while seniors remained. These subordinates were replaced by our volunteers on May 9, 10, 16 and 17," Parakh adds.

On May 12, cops and healthcare workers were provided kits containing dry fruits as a token of appreciation. "Since the Sub District Hospital, the only government hospital in Vaijapur, was overburdened, we suggested roping in private medical manpower. All the private clinics shut down, and government doctors were overburdened with suspected COVID-19 cases. It made sense to use these MBBS and MD doctors to tend to non-COVID patients," Parakh informs.

A total of 7,000 packets of grain have been distributed since the lockdown
A total of 7,000 packets of grain have been distributed since the lockdown

A young, visionary doctor
At 39, Dr Amol Annadate is a well known paediatrician, neonatal intensivist, author, speaker and medical entrepreneur. He manages the 250-bedded Anand Multispeciality Hospital and Anand Group of Institutes. After having completed his MBBS from Seth GS Medical College and KEM Hospital in Parel, Mumbai, Dr Annadate returned to Vaijapur to help his father run the charitable hospital. "As soon as Coronavirus cases started to rise in the state, multiple hospitals and clinics shut down. In Vaijapur, there are some local leaders, whose medical knowledge is often sought after. They may be literate or illiterate, but always end up finding the right solutions for their people. So, we called a meeting with them, making them the brand ambassadors of social distancing. They went around spreading awareness in the town and people started taking it seriously," Dr Annadate explains.

But medical migration posed a problem. "My multispeciality hospital has a CT scan facility and offers free dialysis. Yet, people would go to Aurangabad district hospital. We had to tell them to stop leaving the town, because the more you travel the higher the chances of contracting the virus. In Marathi, we call this sthaniya maan, meaning importance of place. This medical migration had to be cut down." Dr Annadate, who also runs a YouTube channel, started appealing to people to stay
within town limits. It worked. While some patients are accommodated under the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jan Arogya Yojana, others are treated free of cost at Anand Multispeciality Hospital. "Those who can afford medical expenses, are charged R10 for OPD services. We have also started testing for COVID now. That, however, is chargeable."

Dr Amol Annadate, MLA Ramesh Bornare, Vijay Aher, registrar, Vinayakrao Patil College, and Nilesh Parakh, Jain Social Group
Dr Amol Annadate, MLA Ramesh Bornare, Vijay Aher, registrar, Vinayakrao Patil College, and Nilesh Parakh, Jain Social Group

Out of the total number of patients that come to Dr Annadate, around 60 per cent are Muslims. "After Ramzan began on April 24, Muslim leaders came to me saying that social distancing norms were being violated at the Jamia Masjid. They requested that I inform them about Coronavirus and its consequences. They felt that this information, coming from a doctor, would make more of a difference than if it came from a Maulana." It worked. The mosque that saw a minimum of 2,000 devotees on Fridays suddenly witnessed a decline in numbers. "In the video, I also told them not to perform wudu (rinsing nose) in the mosque, to avoid spread of the infection."

Dr Annadate creates one video every two days, which is shared right through Vaijapur. "I give them solutions, tell them more about the virus, ask them to stay calm and follow all government guidelines. I reassure them; if they run out of hand sanitisers, they can always use soap and water as immediate backup."

A passage home
Vaijapur, also known as the Gateway to Marathwada, is a passing-through point for migrants leaving Mumbai and Nashik for Vidarbha, North Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. About 1,500 to 2,000 labourers have been crossing Vaijapur on a daily basis since the lockdown was imposed, making the city and its people vulnerable to the virus. Vijay Aher, registrar at Vinayakrao Patil College, recalls, "On April 27, a colleague and I had visited the college campus to check on security guards and gardeners. It was a scorching afternoon when I saw a sea of labourers walking outside the campus on the Nashik-Aurangabad Highway. One of them asked for water, so I immediately handed a bottle. The other asked for food, we didn't have any."

Aher immediately contacted the local administration, NGOs and college staffers to offer assistance. An acharya was appointed to cook khichadi and dahi bhaji for 500 migrants. "They used Vaijapur as a pitstop. There are many trees outside the college campus, where they would rest for a few hours, have a meal and then move on to the next destination," Aher says.

Dr Annadate and his team were called in to check their temperature. "First, I was told to bring all migrants to our hospital, but I told them not to move. Along with a team, I personally went and checked them outside the campus."

Vaijapur is bordered by the Nashik district to the west, Kannad tehsil to the north, Gangapur tehsil to the east, and Ahmednagar district to the south—all of them are Coronavirus hotspots. "A lot of these migrants usually come from Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, Dombivli and Sinnar MIDC in Nashik. A majority of them are heading home to Washim, located in eastern Vidarbha. These groups of migrants include kids and old people, too," Aher adds.

Tables were laid out in the college campus to distribute food. Around eight to 10 college staffers worked on rotational shifts to facilitate this. Farmers, too, contributed by offering fruits and vegetables to the migrants. Kids were given milk and biscuits, and seniors were provided brand new chappals.

Members of the Jain Social Group were asked to focus on this lot. "Since knowing travel history is very important to detect the virus, it was recommended by the state government to give the migrants a fitness certificate. We started collating data of all those entering Vaijapur, issuing them fitness certificates free of cost, and arranging buses and trucks for them to be transported to Aurangabad district," Parakh explains.

On May 22 and 23, trains left for Bihar via Aurangabad. A lot of these migrants at Aurangabad station had been sent from Vaijapur. Most labourers were sent home as per government guidelines, but there were some exceptions. Parakh shares, "There was a woman who was carrying her 16-day-old baby on foot; she didn't even have a pair of slippers. Out of humanity and desperation, we got her and her family into a private vehicle that was headed to Aurangabad. We asked the authorities if it was okay, and they trusted our instinct. We maintained transparency, so they gave us the power to ferry some people without delaying their journeys due to government legalities."

In another case, a 72-year-old man, who had walked 115 km in one day, was found at a check post. "We were informed that the group needed food kits so we ran to the location. When I found him lying in the middle of the road, I asked him to move a little to the footpath as he could get run over. He looked at me, and said he had no energy to move even an inch. My heart sank," Parakh recalls.

A model town
"Vaijapur's sub-district magistrate, Dr Sandipan Sanap, is a doctor. Had he not guided us, this wouldn't have been possible," Dr Annadate says. Another important factor is the coming together of the authorities, NGOs, police officers, healthcare staff, volunteers and both opposition and ruling party members. "We are all in this together. I keep telling everyone in my videos, the government can do a lot of things, but it cannot do everything. We all need to become the government and save ourselves. This is not rocket science; the people of Vaijapur managed to stay safe by rising to the cause and becoming the government."

1.5-2k
No. of migrants crossing Vaijapur daily to head to Vidarbha, UP, Odisha, Jharkhand and MP

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