Health

COVID-19: How Meghalaya bucks the trend

A host of reasons including prior curfew conditions, humidity as well as prompt government action are the theories being touted behind the state's nil infection rate

 
By Surendra Panwar
Published: Tuesday 07 April 2020
A deserted road in Meghalaya. Photo: Surendra Panwar

While India is grappling with the worst-ever health crisis since Independence, following the outbreak of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), there are a few states that continue to the buck the trend even after a spike in cases. Along with the Northeastern states, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have done reasonably well in containing the deadly virus.

Though the entire North East has reported four-five positive cases so far, Meghalaya and Nagaland remain corona-free. Meghalaya makes for a unique case study as it virtually self-isolated itself before the lockdown was formally announced on March 24, 2020.

This was due to intermittent spells of curfew and invocation of Section 144, following demonstrations against and in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Act. It started in mid-December soon after Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

The local sentiment forced the state government to adopt a resolution in favour of ILP (Inner Line Permit) in December 2019. The government controlled the situation well when there were reports that a local organisation trying to ‘implement’ the British-era permit’s vigilante version.

Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland are already under Inner line Permit. The sub-nationalist Hynniewtrep Youth Council (HYC) claimed that it used its own ILP to catch at least 100 people from Assam who entered Meghalaya without valid documents.

Though the government remained silent on this, the uncertainty restricted the movement of people into the state. Many local newspapers reported that it badly hit the tourism and hospitality sector.

Though there is no official version on this, a cross-section of people this writer spoke to, admitted that this, combined with the curfew and violent protests in the last couple of months which reduced the number of tourists, could have been one of the reasons for the state being able to contain the COVID-19.

Theories 

The government took a wise decision at every crucial moment and handled the situation very well. Even before the countrywide lockdown, the government got the message across. The result was that people got used to lockdown conditions well in advance.

Then, there is a theory doing the rounds which links warm and humid weather to slower spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2), according to a study which suggests that Asian countries experiencing monsoon may experience lesser transmission of the virus.

The scientists, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, assessed data on the number of COVID-19 infections in different parts of the world and compared it with two parameters of weather from all the regions — temperature and humidity.

The findings, described in SSRN repository, show that 90 per cent of the SARS-CoV-2 transmissions until March 22, 2020, have occurred in regions with temperatures between 3 and 17 degrees Celsius.

They added that these regions also had between 4 to 9 gram per cubic metre (g/m3) of absolute humidity — a measure of the amount of water vapour per cubic metre of atmosphere.

Meghalaya is the wettest state in the country and coupled with the higher level of humidity compared to other regions, could have restricted the virus, if the study is anything to go by.

Jayant Kumar, programme head of the humanitarian organisation, CASA, who has extensively worked in India's tribal regions including the North East says that tribals are the original self-isolators.

“Meghalaya ranks 27th in the country as far as the density of population is concerned and this makes the state a perfect place for social distancing,” Kumar said. According to 2011 census, the density of population in the state is 130/km2 (340/sq mi) which is far less compared to other states.

Though it is not scientifically validated, some people believe that the intermittent spells of rain in the state may act as a natural sanitiser. The sanitation practices in the state are rooted in their tradition. The roads and streets with bamboo bins, even in the remote villages are the real testimony to this. If people of the North East adopt a good practice, they make it sustainable.

There are beliefs that have emerged in the current situation. Many said that ‘kwai’, which is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan), smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut kills bacteria in the throat and gums and heals anemia and blood sugar.

Also, it warms up the body instantly. Another herb which is quite popular in the state is ‘Jamyrdoh’, whch is an important component of the herbal or folk medicine systems in the places where it grows naturally. The whole plant or its juice is consumed for treating certain kind of ailments or applied externally.

The plant possesses anti-inflammatory, diuretic, detoxicant, antiviral and antibacterial properties. It is considered to be an effective medicine against dysentery, hypertension, cough, indigestion, gastritis, fever, pneumonia, skin diseases, urine infection, constipation, laryngitis, etc. Jamyrdoh is either used as salad or vegetable or as herbal medicine in Northeast India.

Government efforts

But all this can not take away the credit from the state government which put in tremendous efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay. Before the lockdown, the chief minister gave the instructions via video conferencing to the deputy commissioners and medical officers of the districts. Participation of local headmen and communities, besides closely monitoring the situation in the state for the next 15 days was crucial, he said.

The meeting also discussed the need for medical volunteers, stocking of essential commodities, and setting up of isolation wards, testing centres and control rooms.

The state government on April 6 said it was preparing to have more COVID-19 hospitals in Shillong and Tura, should  a need arise in the future. This was revealed by the state's Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Alexander Hek, after a review meeting at the state Secretariat.

The minister held a meeting with the officials, owners of private hospitals and representatives from Shillong-based hospitals of the armed forces. He said all of them had agreed to co-operate with the steps taken by the government.

“Besides having corona care centres in the state, the Shillong Civil Hospital and Tura Civil Hospital will be fully converted into full-fledged COVID-19 hospitals if the situation arises,” the minister said, even as he added that in such circumstances, the other patients lodged in these hospitals will be transferred to city-based private hospitals.

Even before the countrywide lockdown, the Meghalaya government, as early as March 19, decided to shut tourist spots in the state as part of its measures to prevent any possible transmission and outbreak of COVID-19.

This piece does not prescribe consumption of kwai and Jamyrdoh to treat COVID-19. Their benefits are purely based on local beliefs and limited research material

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