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Coronavirus threatens India's isolated tribes

Dharvi Vaid New Delhi
August 31, 2020

Although COVID-19 case numbers are rising in India's Chhattisgarh state, some isolated tribes there have never heard about the disease. New initiatives now aim to inform tribal people about the pandemic.

A scene from a community meeting of tribals in Parcheli
Image: DW/D. Vaid

When India went into a coronavirus lockdown in March, the central state of Chhattisgarh had reported only six cases of COVID-19. However, the numbers in the state have now swelled to over 67,000 registered cases.

Heavily forested Chhattisgarh is home to a tribal population estimated to be over 7 million. Many of these tribes are isolated and dwell deep in the forests. During the pandemic, this isolation and lack of information and resources is putting rural tribes at risk.

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Masa is a member of the Gond tribe and lives in Khutepal village in Chhattisgarh's southern Bastar division. The 60-year-old man doesn't know what the coronavirus is.

"I haven't heard of any such outbreak. No one has told us anything about it," he told DW.

Masa recently acquired a face mask from local authorities. He keeps it neatly folded in a gunny sack containing his possessions.

"The village head gave me and some other residents this mask but we don't know what it's for," Masa said.

Mangaldai, a Khutepal resident who makes a living brewing Mahua liquor, was left with dwindling supplies when the markets were shut down.

"All the shops were shuttered and we didn't know why. They were making announcements from vehicles on the main road but we couldn't hear them. They didn't come here," she told DW, pointing towards a mud road that provides the only access to her part of the village.

Self-isolation preventing information

Bastar division is Chhattisgarh's tribal heartland, with tribal people constituting nearly 70% of the total population. The tribal communities here have disparate living conditions, and some tribes are better connected and equipped than others.

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Even within villages there are differences. If you cross over to the other side of Khutepal, where the village head lives, the area is better-connected and has more resources. With mobile connectivity and access to schools and hospitals, people here know about the coronavirus.

"I got to know about COVID-19 when they closed the schools. Since then, doctors have also visited us regularly," said 18-year-old Ramesh, the village head's son.

Ramesh said people on the other side of the village aren't aware of the outbreak, as attempts by villagers to spread information on COVID-19 have fallen on deaf ears.

"They want to live without interference and do as they wish," Ramesh told DW.

A tribal woman in Mandipara
A tribal woman in Mandipara, ParcheliImage: DW/D. Vaid

Maoist insurgency amid pandemic

Bastar is also the epicenter of India's Maoist insurgency. In villages deep within the Maoist belt, authorities face difficulties in making resources available to tribes due to threats from insurgents.

Deva is a villager living in Dantewada district, which is nestled in a region among those worst-hit by Maoist violence. Access to his home near Parcheli village means using roads that are often cut off by Maoists.

Read more: India struggles to fend off Maoist menace

Neither Deva nor his neighbors know much about COVID-19. He told DW there is no network connectivity to allow for updates from authorities about the coronavirus situation.

"There are no mobile towers here. We don't get a signal," Deva said.

Shubhranshu Choudhary, journalist and founder of CGnet Swara — an audio news platform for tribal people — told DW the situation in the region is "scary" because there are huge areas with "no government presence."

"In those areas there is no question of any testing or doing anything proactively. The government and Maoists both have not listened to the UN's request for a ceasefire. The health infrastructure is very poor and this fight makes things very difficult," he said.

"If COVID-19 reaches tribal areas or the red zones where Maoists have control, it will be disastrous."

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Danger of reverse migration

Bastar's tribal communities are also concerned about the looming threat of COVID-19 infections from reverse migration.

With travel restrictions across India now being lifted, migrant workers are making their way home to these tribal villages, increasing the risk of exposure for these communities.

"I don't know where the quarantine centers are and I am worried I'll infect my family back home," said Shyam (name changed) who returned to the Kuakonda district with 14 other tribal people, who work as manual laborers in southern India.

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Tribes take initiative

Forced to fend for themselves, some tribal communities are taking matters in their own hands.

In some villages, practitioners of traditional medicine are using forest produce to boost natural immunity.

"I tell people to eat Charota vegetables that are found here in abundance. Our ancestors used it to improve immunity," Budhram, who practices traditional medicine in Parcheli village, told DW.

"The tribal medicine that we make from jungle herbs also protects us from diseases, but if we see someone who's very sick, we send them to the hospital in the next village," he added.

CGnet Swara also provides pandemic information via an audio platform it calls "Voicebook."

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Most people in the area don't know much about COVID-19
Most people in the area don't know much about COVID-19Image: DW/D. Vaid

"Facebook is social media for people who have internet and can read and write. Many in the tribal areas don't have that luxury and they also don't feel comfortable reading and writing," Choudhary explained.

"We felt there was a need for a Voicebook, where people could record their stories in their own voices and hear them, instead of reading," he added.

Using Voicebook, tribal people can call a phone number that connects them to the internet and allows them to record what they want to say.

After cross-verification, these stories are then broadcast or can be heard by calling in. During the lockdown, the initiative was flooded with calls from migrant laborers stuck in different states.

In the media dark zones, another CGnet Swara initiative, "Bultoo Radio," is making attempts to fill the communication void.

"We create audio files in which we also put information about COVID-19 in the dialects of these tribal communities and make a radio program," said Choudhary, adding one villager provides the recordings to others using bluetooth.

"There are areas where even audio does not reach because phones do not have signals. You need to be creative to reach the last mile, and sometimes the last mile is covered by foot," Choudhary said.

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