As deaths rise, fear of COVID haunts rural U.P.


While officially numbers have fallen, several cases of undiagnosed illness and deaths are reported across districts

As per official figures, the number of daily cases of COVID-19 in Uttar Pradesh have started declining. On Tuesday, the State recorded 20,463 new cases and 306 new deaths as against 2.33 lakh samples tested.

However, in its villages there is a growing sense of alarm due to a spurt in not only positive cases and deaths, but also incidence of cold, cough and fever.

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From April 10 to May 11, officially, deaths due to COVID in Unnao jumped from 93 to 168. The district has 1,986 active cases. However, as one travels through its villages, testimonies show that the figure may be much higher as not even all symptomatic cases have been tested. While the inadequate medical infrastructure was a deterrent, there is also a reluctance to get tested.

The case of retired bank cashier, Lalta Prasad is typical. He first displayed symptoms of COVID-19 on April 24. After getting medicines from a quack in his village Sairpur, his fever subsided but he continued to suffer from cough. He assumed he would recover as the symptoms were mild.

However, his condition started to deteriorate and he developed pain in the chest. On May 1, Prasad finally tested for COVID-19 at a hospital in Lucknow on the insistence of his family members who live in the capital. He was declared positive the same evening. After a struggle, they found him a bed in a private hospital. Prasad initially showed signs of recovery but on the fourth day of admission, tests showed his lungs had suffered damage of upto 95%, says his son-in-law Pradeep.

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On May 8, Mr. Prasad died, much to the consternation of the family who has believed that villages were far safer than urban centres ravaged by COVID-19.

“He wouldn’t go out much except for his daily morning and evening strolls in the fields,” said his daughter Priyanka.

The family believes Prasad was infected due to the crowds in the villages during the campaigning, voting and counting of the recently-concluded Panchayat polls. The quack who initially treated him also turned out to be positive, said Mr. Pradeep.

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“The infection spread in the villages through the panchayat poll,” he said.

Mr. Pradeep has tested negative but he is worried for others in Sairpur. Nobody from the administration has come to their house to take samples of those his father-in-law may have come in contact with, he said, adding that their house and neighbourhood were not sanitised despite his requests.

In Faridipur, farmer Kanhaiya Singh, 38, has for the past week been in self-isolation in a tiny room crammed with medical equipment, including a nebulizer, and other essentials. He has not been tested for COVID but has CT scan reports showing lung damage.

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Mr. Singh got fever soon after two visits to Lucknow to buy medicines for his mother. He relied on a local chemist and purchased medicine to combat the fever. It provided him temporary relief. But the fever returned. His brother-in-law then sent him some medicines for COVID from Lucknow. Mr. Singh said he was also using Patanjali’s Coronil, an ayurvedic pill whose effectiveness remains uncertified.

Mr Singh does not trust the facilities in Unnao and is avoiding sending a sample for RT-PCR test. “I don’t trust their reports. Some people who did not even go for a test were sent positive reports,” he said.

His nephew Sunil Singh did not even care to self-isolate after suffering from fever for three days. “I popped a pill and felt better. Why should I test myself if I feel fine now? If it was indeed COVID, it would not have got cured by a simple crocin tablet,” he said.

Officials at the Hasanganj Community Health Centre say since April, the number of patients turning up for testing from villages on their own has shot up. They attribute it to fears after the panchayat elections and increased awareness.

Data of samples sent from Unnao to the SGPGI in Lucknow for RT-PCR tests after random selection and tracing of asymptomatic contacts of positive cases show that on May 7, 8 and 9 around 65-75% of these positive cases were from semi-urban and rural areas.

On May 8, out of the 971 samples for which results were returned in Unnao, roughly less than 70 were from urban blocks out of which around 30 tested positive; the remaining 140-odd positive cases were from semi-urban or rural areas. The close contacts, relatives and neighbours of positive cases are traced for tests and those found positive are immediately put under home isolation and provided a medical kit, said medical officer at the CHC Alim Abbas.

“Those coming to us are mostly young and from villages,” said another officer.

Across the districts, data shows that several are testing positive from the same villages. In Laharapur village in Ganj Moradabad Block, for instance, farmer Ranveer Singh’s nine family members including grandchildren aged 2, 4 and 6 tested positive when officials traced the contacts of his elder son — an army jawan home on leave — and a nephew who tested positive in Bangermau after complaining of cough. Ranveer himself tested negative and is relieved that those who tested positive did not have any major symptoms.

In Hasnapur village, however, the mood is sombre. Shaven heads of male members of the village pradhan’s family tell of a tragedy. Elected as village headman for the second time in a row, Jai Singh Yadav did not live to enjoy this victory as he succumbed to illness a few days after counting.

While locals suspect he had tested positive on April 26, the day of voting, his family said they never tested him for COVID but only got a CT scan done. The family said doctors told them the cause of death was heart-attack. They are reluctant to disclose his COVID status. “He was admitted to the hospital after problems in breathing. He did not have any problem during the campaigning,” said Piyush, his nephew.

The family initially rushed Jai Singh to a hospital in Lucknow before taking him to Kanpur, where he died. Piyush says the thought of taking him to a hospital in their own district did not even occur to them.

Like in several villages, even here there is resentment against the State government for conducting the panchayat elections during the surge in COVID. “They should have held the elections when things were under control,” said Piyush.

Chief Medical Officer Unnao Ashutosh Kumar did not provide a clear picture of the magnitude of the rural situation even though he admitted that positive cases were being reported from the villages too.

Asked how many deaths had taken place in villages in Unnao, he said COVID deaths are taking place in hospitals. Asked if more COVID-19 patients and deaths were coming in from rural or urban areas, Mr. Kumar said, “No, there are both types.”

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