COVID-19 strikes in Odisha’s rural heartland, villagers pushed further into poverty

Social activists demand that the government come up with new programmes to address the pandemic-induced new poor.

Thirteen-year-old Jagannath Rana is yet to come to terms with the loss of his father Biranchi, 45, who died of COVID-19 four days ago in Odisha’s Nuapada district.

Jagannath works as an assistant in a shop six km away from his village Mahulmunda in Khariar block, but has not been able to find some time to grieve over the biggest tragedy of his life.

He is not alone. With the pandemic triggering untimely deaths across the length and breadth of Nuapada, families are grappling over the loss of their family members as they scamper to earn their daily bread.

Biranchi, a truck driver, was responsible for taking care of his two differently-abled children (one visually challenged and another with cerebral palsy), wife and widowed sister and his four nieces.

“We depend on government welfare scheme for rice, our staple food. We have given our two acres of land to a sharecropper. We sell the annual paddy yield to meet expenses of festivals. Now that my brother is dead, we have little money to buy grocery items and medicines,” said Panchumati Rana, sister of Biranchi. Three members of the family including wife, sister and a niece of Biranchi are COVID-19 positive.

So the burden of running the household is now on the tender shoulders of Jagannath, who gets a salary of ₹20,000 a year.

“I was asked to convey the message regarding death of Biranchi in COVID-19 hospital to family members. After I came across the pathetic condition of the family, I could not muster courage to give the tragic news. I wandered for three hours here and there before informing them,” said Annada Shankar Das, an Ayush doctor assigned to track COVID-19 trends in the community.

In Mahulmunda village, at least 10 villagers have been infected while two have succumbed to the disease.

At Ulbha village in nearby block, Mangal Singh Sunani, 60, a daily labourer, died of COVID-19 last week. Sunani’s wife, son and daughter-in-law — all daily wagers — have so far tested positive. But the death of Sunani has been a big blow to the family.

The landless family earns good amount of wage as many people construct house during this time around.

Volunteers’ gesture

To help the poor tide over the crisis, Mukta Bichar Manch, a forum of volunteers at Khariar, has been giving one month ration to families of the victims. But it is far too little for Nuapada, one of the backward and poverty-stricken districts of Odisha from where hundreds of people migrate out to work in brick-kilns in other States.

On May 2, of the 53 migrant labourers of Nuapada who returned from Telangana after being rescued from a brick-kiln, 37, tested positive.

“God forbid if something bad happens to anyone of them, families would struggle to make ends meet next morning. The COVID-19 pandemic has struck the poorest of poor in Nuapada where life is tough and majority people are at the bottom of the economic ladder,” said Dr. Das.

Social activists demand that the government come up with new programmes to address the COVID-19-induced new poor. The Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) has already directed the State government to provide immediate support and care to children in case of death of parents due to the pandemic.

As of now, 87 COVID-19 patients have died in the second wave in Nuapada district. Of them, 70 succumbed to the disease in the district COVID-19 hospital alone. There were reports of deaths in home isolation. The State government, however, reported a total of 35 deaths in the district since March last year.

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