“SAABUN HAI?”—DO YOU HAVE SOAP? Thirty-year-old Shyamkali Baiga, knew the drill. She brought out a bright-green bar of soap, held it close to her nose and confirmed that she could not smell it. Savni Baiga, a health worker, briefly took her eyes off the list of symptoms she was ticking off on a sheet and nodded in acknowledgement.
As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept through India, looking at the horrific visuals from Delhi and other cities, I wondered about the situation in villages. Rural India has been the focus of my reporting for the last thirteen years, and I knew its fragile healthcare systems would struggle to handle the pandemic. In early May, after fully recovering from the virus myself, I set out on a motorbike to document its impact on rural areas in Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, through the work of doctors working in low-resource settings in those regions. My first port of call was the Jan Swasthya Sahyog hospital, a facility with a hundred beds and two operation theatres, in the village of Ganiyari, in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur district. Founded in 2000 by a group of doctors who quit their careers at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, to work on healthcare in the region, the hospital and its three sub-centres serve an estimated 1.5 million people in more than two thousand villages.