A virus in the woods

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on May 08, 2020 Published on May 08, 2020

Back to the wall: A tribal woman waits for food during the lockdown in Birbhum, West Bengal   -  PTI

For forest dwellers, who have for long been vulnerable to infections and respiratory illnesses, Covid-19 signals starvation and death

* One in five Covid-19 cases develop into serious respiratory illnesses. In tribal areas these would lead to death due to a lack of healthcare

Around the same time that the country shut itself to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly a quarter of its people were preparing for the busiest season of the year. April to June is the harvest period for forest produce such as mahua flowers, tendu leaves, wild honey and gum. The lockdown brought work to a standstill. Alongside the health emergency, at stake are the lives and livelihood of more than 100 million adivasi or scheduled tribe people — 90 per cent of whom live in rural areas, typically hamlets inside forests — and another 150 million non-adivasiforest dwellers.

However, there has been little news coverage, except for sporadic reports and government announcements, on the fate of these forest communities. Experts warn that there can be a higher death toll from Covid-19 in these areas because of poor health infrastructure. A lack of income before the monsoons may further drive many to hunger and debt.

Poor health and immunity

Adivasis already face a higher burden of infectious and respiratory diseases than the non-adivasi population, according to a 2018 report of the central government’s Expert Committee on Tribal Health. On an average, about 40 per cent of illnesses among adivasis is from infections (27 per cent for non-adivasis) and 18 per cent from respiratory diseases (14 per cent in non-adivasi population).

Lack of healthcare facilities make tribal areas vulnerable to a high mortality from Covid-19 infections, says Dr Abhay Bang, chairperson of the committee and a well-known doctor working in adivasi areas in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra.

While the private health sector is absent in these parts, the government healthcare system is riddled with staff shortages and absenteeism. So, adivasis with symptoms are more likely to consult quacks and so-called faith healers. According to WHO (World Health Organization), nearly 20 per cent of all Covid-19 infections develop into serious respiratory illnesses. Serious cases in tribal areas are more likely to lead to death due to lack of healthcare, says Dr Bang.

Testing is again a major challenge in remote forest areas. In Gadchiroli, for instance, nearly 1,500 tribal villages are dependent on just one sample collection centre at the district hospital, which sends the samples to Nagpur to add to a growing wait-list.

Without extensive testing, Covid-19 may go unrecognised and deaths will be unrecorded or assigned to other causes such as pneumonia, Dr Bang says.

“Maybe with high pneumonia deaths, alarm bells will ring. It will be too late by then.”

Protecting income

In the first phase of the lockdown, forest departments stopped people from entering forests, says Tushar Dash, an Odisha-based independent consultant on tribal affairs who is preparing a report on the current situation in forest communities. “This was unnecessary as tribals do not enter forests in large groups and anyway maintain distancing,” he adds.

The government warned that traders coming from urban areas to buy forest produce could infect tribal communities. “It is essential to obviate the movement of middlemen from urban areas to tribal habitations,” union tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda wrote to the chief ministers of 15 states on April 6.

The same day, the environment ministry issued an order barring entry into wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to “stop the infection from spreading to animals”. A group of scientists wrote to the ministry that there was no evidence of human-animal transmission, and that nearly four million people depend on forests for a living.

Collection of forest produce was finally exempted from the lockdown on April 16. Although the government has asked 15 states with a significant adivasi population to procure forest produce directly from the communities, only Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha have embarked on this, according to central government data released on April 30.

In the absence of procurement, traders might force forest dwellers to make “distress sales”, the tribal affairs ministry has written to the state governments.

While the potential loss of income from forest produce has been reported more widely across India, there is little news reporting from forest areas and all information available is from local campaigners with working cell phones, says Dash. “But the little information we are getting shows there is a major impact on a quarter of India’s population.”

Need for urgent action

Of particular concern are the so-called particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or PVTGs, a sub-group of adivasis earlier known as primitive tribes. These communities are poorer and have greater dependence on forests, and they are also smaller in number; some such as the Koraga group in Kasaragod, Kerala, number just about 1,600.

“We must consider PVTGs as some of the precious human races that need protection. But I cannot see any special plan or package for their protection from Covid-19,” says KH Amita Bachan, a Kerala-based researcher and member of the tribal affairs ministry’s expert group on PVTGs’ land rights.

Without measures for income support, forest communities face the threat of malnutrition and even debt trap, says Pratibha Shinde of Lok Sangharsh Morcha, an organisation that works in forest areas in southern Gujarat and north Maharashtra.

The Lok Sangharsh Morcha has demanded that jobs under the employment guarantee scheme MGNREGA be initiated ahead of the monsoons, before the villages are cut off by floods or rainwater, and people are left with no work.

“They can start tree plantation or any other work,” says Shinde. “Otherwise, if not from Covid-19, people will die of hunger.”

Nihar Gokhale is an environment and development journalist

Published on May 08, 2020

A letter from the Editor

Dear Readers,

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world completely in the last few months. All of us have been locked into our homes, economic activity has come to a near standstill. Everyone has been impacted.

Including your favourite business and financial newspaper. Our printing and distribution chains have been severely disrupted across the country, leaving readers without access to newspapers. Newspaper delivery agents have also been unable to service their customers because of multiple restrictions.

In these difficult times, we, at BusinessLine have been working continuously every day so that you are informed about all the developments – whether on the pandemic, on policy responses, or the impact on the world of business and finance. Our team has been working round the clock to keep track of developments so that you – the reader – gets accurate information and actionable insights so that you can protect your jobs, businesses, finances and investments.

We are trying our best to ensure the newspaper reaches your hands every day. We have also ensured that even if your paper is not delivered, you can access BusinessLine in the e-paper format – just as it appears in print. Our website and apps too, are updated every minute, so that you can access the information you want anywhere, anytime.

But all this comes at a heavy cost. As you are aware, the lockdowns have wiped out almost all our entire revenue stream. Sustaining our quality journalism has become extremely challenging. That we have managed so far is thanks to your support. I thank all our subscribers – print and digital – for your support.

I appeal to all or readers to help us navigate these challenging times and help sustain one of the truly independent and credible voices in the world of Indian journalism. Doing so is easy. You can help us enormously simply by subscribing to our digital or e-paper editions. We offer several affordable subscription plans for our website, which includes Portfolio, our investment advisory section that offers rich investment advice from our highly qualified, in-house Research Bureau, the only such team in the Indian newspaper industry.

A little help from you can make a huge difference to the cause of quality journalism!

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
You have read 1 out of 3 free articles for this week. For full access, please subscribe and get unlimited access to all sections.